We Own the Night owns not only the best title of the year but also a terrific performance by Joaquin Phoenix as a party boy turned cop in James Gray’s latest engrossing pulp saga.
With dark circles for eyes and a lumbering frame simultaneously formidable and burdened, Phoenix’s Bobby Green is the police drama archetype of the prodigal son, who in 1988 works as a Brooklyn nightclub manager for a Russian mafia boss but, after an assassination attempt on his cop brother Joseph (Mark Wahlberg) by mob goons, returns to the family fold to help bust the responsible baddies. The family and relationship dynamics, with Robert Duvall as the brothers’ deputy police chief father and Eva Mendes as Bobby’s Puerto Rican girlfriend, are largely by the numbers, but the A-list cast, led by Phoenix as the black sheep, keep things humming until Gray’s direction brings We Own the Night to the promised land of tough-guy poetry. Two remarkable set pieces will not be soon forgotten: the first portrays Bobby’s infiltration into the headquarters of a drug operation while wearing a wire as a nightmare of eerie ambiance and destabilizing adrenaline; the second paces a realistic car chase during a downpour to the merciless beat of windshield wipers.
Gray, director of the similarly excellent The Yards, has better instincts, perhaps, for his cops and crooks than he does for their decade of decadence (the “streets in chaos” so often eluded to are hardly present; meanwhile, Blondie, Bowie, and the Clash were old news by ‘88, though I guess Rick Astley wouldn’t really set a mood), but We Own the Night is a solid thriller brimming with professionalism — it gets the job done and more.