OH! BROTHER : a second look at ‘We Own the Night’ [8/10]

Powerfully intense crime-drama We Own the Night arrives on British multiplex screens with nary a fraction of the noisy hype and inescapable fanfare accorded over the past year or so to Martin Scorsese's The Departed, Ridley Scott's American Gangster or David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises. This is deeply ironic, because writer-director Gray's belated follow-up to 2000's so-so The Yards – reuniting that film's stars Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg – often comes across like a cross between all three of those movies, and is ultimately much more impressive and satisying than any of them.

Whereas Scott made a string of distracting, careless gaffes with regard to period detail, Gray evokes his chosen milieu (Brooklyn, over the winter of 1988/9) with a quiet efficiency that allows us to concentrate fully on the characters and the story – a story which, unlike The Departed, gets by without excessive melodrama or contrivance. And whereas depiction of London's Russian Mafia in Eastern Promises came across as cliched, patronising and ersatz, writer-director Gray paints a much more convincing portrait of their Brooklyn cousins.

He scores by filling the key supporting roles with fine, unshowy actors (Alex Veadov, Oleg Taktarov, Moni Moshonov) who are (a) Russian or of Russian extraction and (b) relatively unfamiliar faces. In addition, refreshingly, writer-director Gray (whose own grandparents were Russian immigrants) doesn't need to make big deal of the fact that the main characters – straight-arrow cop Joe Grusinsky (Wahlberg), his nightclub-manager brother Bobby (Phoenix), and their grizzled, 64-year-old, veteran police-chief dad Burt (Robert Duvall, 75) – are themselves of Slavic descent, instead incorporating a few background touches which indicate that they're Polish-American.

Not that Bobby is particularly keen to advertise this fact: he conducts his business at the El Caribe nightclub – which he manages – under the surname 'Green', so that his friends and employers don't suspect he's related to a prominent law-enforcement family. This secrecy puts him in a unique – and precarious – position, after Joe discovers that ambitious gangland kingpin Vadim (Veadov), black-sheep nephew of Bobby's kindly boss, furrier Marat (Moshonov), is planning to bring a major drug shipment into New York, and might well use El Caribe as his base of distribution. Wild-living, coke-snorting Bobby initially reacts with bemused disgust when Joe suggests he assist in the police operation against Vadim – but violent circumstances soon force Bobby to reassess his priorities…

It's a premise which could, in the wrong hands, have come across as corny and sentimental – but Gray, whose attention to sound is particularly vivid, injects proceedings with a steely, dour gravity (aided by Joaquin Baca-Asay's cobalt-and-gunmetal-hued cinematography) that proves consistently compelling. Performances are rock-solid – with Phoenix, whose character undergoes the most significant journey over the course of the two hours, particularly impressive. Striking action-heavy set-pieces – including a terrific, nightmarish, rain-soaked car-pursuit shot on the Bronx's Bruckner Expressway - are handled with aplomb, often making use of underexposed New York locations (Gray doggedly refused to take the cheaper option of filming in Toronto) as the narrative builds steadily to a brief, surprisingly moving final scene.

An old-fashioned genre piece it may be, but by any standard We Own the Night (the title, by the way, is a whistling-in-the-dark NYPD slogan from the 1980s, glimpsed in the picture's opening montage of monochrome Leonard Freed stills taken from the book Police Work) is a superior example of the form. And it's one that's been allowed to sneak under most people's radar, possibly a consequence of the film having passed through various studios' hands on its way to our screens. Rather like David Fincher's Zodiac, the picture was barely mentioned in most critics' dispatches ("an OK television movie", carped Variety) when appearing in the main competition at Cannes earlier this year – during which time it was nevertheless subject of a 'bidding war', eventually won by Sony Pictures for a reported sum of $11m.

And its UK distributor Universal hasn't exactly pushed the boat out in terms of billboards, TV trailers or bus-shelter advertisements (then again, releasing the picture at Christmas, up against the likes of The Golden Compass, Bee Movie and Enchanted, must have severely restricted all promotional activities.) One would be forgiven for presuming that We Own the Night had been some kind of disastrous flop in the States, but it took a not-unrespectable $28.6m in North America (this on a reported budget of $21m). The film did even better, relatively speaking, in France, where Gray is reportedly held in considerable regard. Released on this side of the Channel at a different time of the year, and with more of a push, We Own the Night would surely have found its audience – hopefully DVD will prove a happy ending to what's been, so far, a rather dispiriting episode. Movies this good don't come along so often that they should simply be allowed to fall through the cracks.

Neil Young
31st December, 2007

WE OWN THE NIGHT : [8/10] : US 07 : James GRAY : 117m (BBFC)
seen (1) at AMC, Manchester, 15th December (public show : paid  £5.75)
seen (2) at Odeon, Silverlink, Wallsend, 26th December (public show :  £5.35)

more on We Own the Night : Dennis Lim, New York Times (an article from which I pinched several details reproduced above.)