“We Own the Night” may look like “The Departed,” but that illusion only works in 30-second TV spots. Seeing the full two hours, you’ll find that even though it stars Mark Wahlberg in a role similar to his Oscar-nominated turn, this movie is much less refined, more convoluted, overlong and at times downright dull. But saying that it’s no “Departed” is hardly to say it’s without value.
A cop drama set amid New York City’s crack wars of the 1980s, “We Own the Night” centers on New York City Chief of Police Burt Grusinsky (Robert Duvall) and his two sons Joseph and Bobby (Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix, respectively). Joseph followed his father into the force and now heads up an anti-narcotics team. Bobby owns a nightclub popular among wanted drug dealers. He bristles at his father and brother’s suggestion he cooperate with them in bringing down the drug lord Vadim Nezhinski, but after Joseph is attacked by Nezhinski’s men, Bobby finds he has no choice but to go undercover for the police.
The film should have climaxed right there. Phoenix’s take on a slacker brother compelled into righteousness by the site of his brother in a hospital room is measured and uncomfortably authentic. Unfortunately, the plot stumbles onward after this point. The rest isn’t bad, it just has a lurching feel that makes it too easy to detach from the whole proceeding. There are some fine sequences – both action and character-based – but no polished whole.
Though Phoenix, in his first return to the screen since he took on Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line,” finds exceptional depth and versatility in his character, Duvall and Wahlberg are largely wasted in strained character stereotypes. Joseph is slated to be the blameless one who can’t stand his brother’s shortcomings. Wahlberg does the righteous hot-head better than anyone, but his character’s actions are completely uncalled for and slow down the film’s deliberate pace of the film. Duvall, meanwhile, does his best Martin Sheen, and it doesn’t get at the depths of suppressed emotion that supposedly drive his character.
Seeking to be more than just a cop drama with good guys, bad guys and a twist, “We Own the Night” also spends much time brooding over the tense family dynamics and personal sacrifices of the men who wear the badge. I say brooding not because such issues are unworthy of focus but simply because the film seems to have almost nothing to say about them. It’s an interesting concept that given more developed characters and a more accommodating storyline would make for a superb take on the genre, but here it just serves to needlessly prolong things.
There is a lot to like in “We Own the Night,” just not much to remember even minutes after the film. With a cast of this caliber, that has to go down as a disappointment – a watchable, fleetingly compelling disappointment.
We Own the Night
At Quality 16 and Showcase
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars