Friday, October 12, 2007

"We Own the Night" -- * * 1/2

James Gray's third feature, the crime/family drama "We Own the Night," is more entertaining than it really has any right to be considering how many cliches and genre conventions fill up its running time. Despite the talents abound, it can only really be recommended as a rainy day DVD watch or a matinee showing if there's nothing better to go see. It's almost refreshing that the movie dares to be as corny, earnest and unhip as it, but not quite; while there are moments to be savored here, at the end of the day the plot contrivances and character shadings are too familiar to rouse any enthusiasm over.

Taking place in Brooklyn in 1988, the film opens with disco-owner Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix) fingering his girlfriend (Eva Mendes) and proceeding to suck on her titty, before heading downstairs and having a drug-fueled night at his club; he's living a life of irresponsible decadence, you see. Needless to say, his brother Joey (Mark Wahlberg) and father Burt (Robert Duvall)-- both cops-- disapprove. After busting Bobby's club and arresting him and his Russian mafia patrons, Joey gets shot in the face and spends a good portion of the film lying in a coma. This event causes Bobby to re-evaluate his crime-infested lifestyle; mucho lurid plot twists and graphic violence follow.

Though creativity in his writing, and soundtrack selection (for a film set in 1988, the songs used here were popular about a decade earlier) may not be his strong suits, Gray clearly has a sense of style and his talents come out the most in the more visual sequences. There's a completely brilliant-- and I mean that-- car chase sequence midway through that is staggeringly staged and almost warrants the admission price. Taking place completely from Bobby's point of view through his car windshield during a torrential downpour, the scene in a genuine white-knuckler that really makes you wish the rest of the movie was up to its level.

Mendes and Wahlberg are used basically as living, breathing props (which I'm sure Mendes is used to), so fans of theirs shouldn't rush out to the multiplex based on their involvement. Duvall has a tendency to be solid even when he's phoning in a performance-- which he definitely is here-- so as the rock-solid citizen his kids long to be, he's just fine.

Phoenix is terribly strong here, as per usual, and gives more depth and complexity to a movie that doesn't necessarily deserve it. Bobby goes through so many different changes over the course of the film and Phoenix plays every one to the hilt. He's best in his scenes with Wahlberg and Duvall, as Bobby's physical and emotional discomfort around his "better" brother and father is fascinating to watch. While he's even better in the upcoming, significantly more somber "Reservation Road," Phoenix continues to prove here he's one of the most interesting and best actors working today.

The rather conventional "We Own the Night" offers little new to either the crime or family drama genres, but at its worst, it's eye-rolling yet watchable, and at its best (though rare), it's exciting filmmaking. While the moments of the latter make one regret that the movie's ultimately no more than a decent way to kill two hours, that's really all it is.


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