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Review

Hakari: Gritty cop drama ‘We Own the Night’ explores family turmoil

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October 19, 2007

The New York we see in movies tends to be one of two places: the quirky wonderland in which Woody Allen characters work out their respective neuroses or the wretched hive of scum and villainy that flicks like “The Brave One” settle down in. “We Own the Night” brings the latter side to the big screen in a tale that resembles a scaled-down version of “The Departed.”

While not a grand crime saga on the level of Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece, this slice of mob life is successful enough on its own terms, bringing a personal edge to the plot that puts it a cut above more derivative crime films.

Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) and Joseph Grusinsky (Mark Wahlberg) are two Brooklyn brothers from two different worlds.

While Joseph followed their father (Robert Duvall) into the police force, Bobby ditched the family moniker, made a name for himself as a hip nightclub owner and now spends his days with his sexy girlfriend Amada (Eva Mendes).

These worlds collide one night when Joseph makes a bust in Bobby’s joint, targeting the gangster nephew of the club’s Russian owner. Bobby wants nothing to do with the dirty dealings taking place in his club, but he’s nevertheless forced to take action and find a way to protect those he loves after tragedy strikes a little too close to home.

The title “We Own the Night” comes from a slogan that the New York Police Department used to try and combat the city’s growing drug epidemic in the ‘80s. The film’s story reflects this idea, but instead of painting a sweeping “cops and robbers” epic, writer/director James Gray crafts a film more focused on family matters.

There are times when Gray underplays the story to a fault, resulting in some abrupt character revelations and a few thin characterizations.

But this less obvious form of storytelling often works in the movie’s favor, especially during a quietly intense car chase and Bobby’s equally nerve-wracking tour of a dingy drug den.

Phoenix’s character boasts the bulk of the story’s emotional weight, with Bobby’s loyalty to his family being put to the test after years of having his back turned to them. While not as legendary a performance as his turn in “Walk the Line,” Phoenix is quite solid as the conflicted Bobby.

Duvall’s experienced turn is yet another fine addition to a rich and varied career, but Wahlberg takes a casual stroll down Easy Street with his role, and despite helping start the film off with one of the steamiest scenes in recent memory, the gorgeous Mendes ends up giving a not-bad performance in the otherwise hackneyed role of the worried girlfriend.

While a lot of cop movies are content with hurling go-for-broke theatrics and elaborate action sequences on the screen, “We Own the Night” has its feet planted firmly in the grungy reality, its primary strength lying with the story’s understanding that the good fight is not a battle that can be easily fought.

A.J. Hakari is a student at UW-River Falls.