Friday, October 19, 2007


James Gray's WE OWN THE NIGHT ***1/2 out of ****

I love cop films. They're one of my favorite genres. I respond instinctively to the films of Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, Sidney Lumet, Brian De Palma and many others who have explored the time-honored traditions of cops, criminals, familial love, right and wrong, and moral ambiguity. James Gray, the director of LITTLE ODESSA and the vastly underrated and under seen THE YARDS, is an interesting filmmaker. He's made three films (WE OWN THE NIGHT is his third and most recent) and all three have taken place in New York and have centered on Russian mobsters, declining families, and hot-headed male characters. THE YARDS seemed to have been channeling THE GODFATHER (I'm serious here) in its shadowy depiction of the bonds that bring families together, and how those same bonds can tear a family apart. WE OWN THE NIGHT is Gray's most commercial picture to date, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. And while the film isn't perfect, there is much to recommend in this hot-blooded thriller.

A simple story of two brothers on opposite sides of the law, WE OWN THE NIGHT is refreshingly un-self conscious and square; it's a crime film that tells an A-to-B-to-C story that you've seen before but not through this prism. Joaquin Phoenix, in another blistering performance, is a nightclub manager named Bobby, whose top-cop father Burt (Robert Duvall) has little use for. Eschewing the family calling of becoming a cop, Bobby would rather swagger through a night club, blow a line coke off his girlfriend's ass, and mix-it up with drunken clubbers. Bobby's brother, Joseph (Mark Wahlberg), is a hot-shot in the police force, making a name for himself as the leader of a strike team set to take down the Russian mobs who have started to take over the drug scene in the city. It just so happens that the club that Bobby manages is owned by the Russian mob; it's not long before Bobby is forced to choose sides. Work with the police in taking down the group of people that employ him or subvert the police, and his family, by staying loyal to the gangsters. Mix in Eva Mendes as Bobby's smoking hot girlfriend (the film's opening scene is genuinely sexy and quite startling in its overt sexuality) and you've got the requisite ingredients for a gritty cop thriller, which is exactly what WE OWN THE NIGHT becomes.

Gray has structured his tale through three amazing set pieces; a coke-house raid/shootout, an astounding car-chase during a pounding rainstorm, and a near operatic climactic shootout set against the burning tall-weeds of New York. These three sequences are some of the best set-pieces of the year; Gray handles the various action like a skilled vet (there's more "action" in WE OWN THE NIGHT than in LITTLE ODESSA and THE YARDS put together). The car chase warrants special praise. Shooting the entire chase with a subjective camera and no music, the audience only knows as much as Bobby does during the chase, as the camera never leaves the back and front seat of the car. We peer through the front windshield as the windshield wipers clear away the torrential downpour, allowing glimpses of a jack-knifing tractor-trailer truck and other vehicular destruction. With gangsters firing shotguns at Bobby's car, the scene is all white-knuckles and sweaty palms. You'll be even more amazed to know that all of the rain during the car chase was created with computers; the seamless blending of all of the different elements in this bravura sequence is simply astonishing. It truly is a car chase that you've never seen before. The shootout/raid that precedes the car chase is violent, gritty, and nasty--exactly what a shot-gun fueled shoot-out would be. And the ending exudes a dreamy quality that ratchets up the tension to considerable effect.

The film isn't perfect. There's one major plot development that's sort of laughable and some of the dialogue is a bit on the nose, but never bad. The themes that WE OWN THE NIGHT explores are familiar yet thrilling; after all, when will stories about loyalty and deception ever feel new again? The story has an old-school feel to it, which may be the reason why by the end of the film, you may feel that all you've been watching is a standard issue cops and robbers actioner. But the conviction of the performances, especially that of Phoenix, seal some of the story cracks with passion and energy. And one big surprise involving Wahlberg's character was a welcome addition to the story. In the end, WE OWN THE NIGHT may be a tad predictable, but it's well worth watching.

James Gray makes a movie every 7 years or so; here's hoping that we see more of him in the near future. He has a laid-back, unfussy style with a clear understanding of character and plot mechanics. What he lacks in originality during WE OWN THE NIGHT he more than makes up for with his vivid shooting style (the excellent, dark cinematography is courtesy of the talented Joaquin Baca-Asay) and his unwavering dedication to making everything seem atmospherically alive and immediate. The 1980's setting flavors the film with a seedy quality you don't normally get a chance to see on the big screen.

If you love (or even like) cop movies, WE OWN THE NIGHT will do the trick. It's not THE DEPARTED, but what could be at this point? Rather than reinventing the genre with narrative tricks like THE DEPARTED or up the style ante the way Michael Mann's MIAMI VICE did, WE OWN THE NIGHT is a solid entry in a classic genre that shares more in common with Sidney Lumet's movies like SERPICO and PRINCE OF THE CITY. See it for Phoenix's amazing performance (one of the best of the year) and the directorial verve that Gray displays during his action sequences.

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