The year is 1988, and Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) is a small-time club promoter unknowingly working for Russian gangsters. His estranged family, brother Joseph (Mark Wahlberg) and father Burt (Robert Duvall), are New York City cops looking to take down a drug-running associate of the club. Asking for Bobby's cooperation with the investigation, the club wizard is caught between the power of success and the love of his floozy girlfriend (Eva Mendes), and the police blood that flows in his veins. When the Russians start to make destructive moves toward Bobby's family, he finds his choice already made for him.
In "The Yards" and "Little Odessa," writer/director James Gray revealed his attraction to the criminal underground; how crossroads of faith and judgment shaped his characters as they fought to defend their mistakes and hope to correct their wayward lives. "We Own the Night" continues that exploration, only now on a more mythical playing field. It's cops vs. bad guys on the coke-lined gutters of New York City, and Gray brings a bleak enormity to it all that's difficult to resist.
Reteaming Phoenix and Wahlberg after their work together in "Yards," "Night" is simply an actor's dream, allocating meaty roles to the cast that require bold proclamations of distress and disbelief. Phoenix is especially exceptional, extracting areas of torment in Bobby that help Gray's script find the reality it needs to keep dishing out larger-than-life sequences of revenge. Wahlberg and Duvall hold the smaller roles, but their performances ring with a level of steel blue loyalty that positions the film into unbelievable moments of violence and tragedy.
There are two sequences that come to mind when considering the potency of "Night." These are flashes of chaos that are simply masterful in their execution. The first is a drug bust that loses itself to bullet-blazing madness, forcing a character to make a hasty exit out of a window that produces frightful results. The other is a rainstorm car chase that doesn't have much in the way of velocity or gloss, just brilliant staging that exploits the precarious moment spotlessly, crossing confusion with panic in an unforgettable fashion that takes Gray's directorial skill to new heights. It's the most effective piece of suspense I've seen this year.
With cinematographer Joaquin Baca-Asay's stupendous work bringing the audience into the literal dark corners of the criminal underground, "Night" soon assumes a more theatrical stance where family comes first and evil must be punished. Gray tries every which way he can to prevent the film from snowballing into a predictable essay on familial honor, but "Night" is at its most enchanting and direct when it lunges for those juicy emotions. For the most part, "Night" is a film of subtlety and care, but watching Bobby struggle volcanically his destiny, tango with white-hot betrayal, and flush out Russian crime lords in a smoke-filled marsh is undeniably thrilling on primitive, fist-clenching level as much as it is on a cerebral one.
"We Own the Night" is a potent, fantastic film concerning honor and obligation, but it's tough to deny the tortured, flared-nostril appeal of Phoenix and Wahlberg barking after crime as if they were being paid by the punch.