Gangster films of this generation have to be pretty spectacular to attain the same cult classic status as The Godfather and Scarface, two cornerstone films of the genre.
But with the exception of last year’s The Departed, few recent films of this ilk have managed to make significant impact. While We Own the Night doesn’t quite belong in the elite group of masterworks, it is a worthy entry in a genre that’s having something of a renaissance.
The third release from writer-director James Gray, We Own the Night stars Oscar nominees Mark Wahlberg (The Departed, Boogie Nights) – who also co-starred in Gray’s 2000 film The Yards – and Joaquin Phoenix (Gladiator, Walk the Line) as brothers on opposite sides of the law. Phoenix plays Bobby Green, a popular and ambitious nightclub owner accustomed to turning a blind eye to the criminal activity in his club.
Naturally, this puts him at odds with his brother and father (Robert Duvall), who happen to be acclaimed officers for the NYPD. At first, Bobby refuses to help his estranged family members take down the Russian mob boss, but when the investigation takes a personal turn, he decides to take a stand. His decision results in twists and turns that include Bobby turning his back on his former lifestyle to uphold the law, all in the name of family. In this respect, We Own the Night actually serves as the antithesis to The Godfather, in which Michael Corleone joins the mafia family business to protect those he cares about.
Although the film’s plot may not offer anything particularly groundbreaking, the performances more than make up for it. Wahlberg essentially reprises his character from The
Departed; while Phoenix
offers another stunning delivery as the conflicted protagonist who finds his values shifting throughout the film. Such a complicated role requires an exceptional actor to make this transition believable and Phoenix is more than up to the challenge.
While the film does serve as an intriguing character study, it still offers plenty of thrills for action fans. From tense family confrontations to brutal shootouts, We Own the Night definitely has its share of memorable moments. Perhaps the most impressive sequence is a heart-pounding car chase in which Bobby and his girlfriend (Eva Mendes) dodge flying bullets and rush through torrents of rain to escape their pursuers.
Despite the intrigue of the criminal underworld that dominates the film, We Own the Night is primarily about family loyalty and the sometimes tenuous but undeniable bonds that inevitably emerge when loved ones are in peril. Gray wisely remains faithful to this theme throughout the film and, without a doubt, the execution of his vision makes the film gel.
Though the cast is top-notch and the story compelling, something still feels amiss. Nothing about We Own the Night is original enough to truly distinguish it from the hundreds of cops-and-robbers films that preceded it. Gray, Phoenix and Wahlberg may have fallen short of their hopes to create an instant classic, but nevertheless, the film remains a solid effort and is certainly worth checking out.