'We Own the Night" is in an unfortunate position.
This movie about crime and family and honor and trust and betrayal and death comes out exactly a year after Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winning, universally acclaimed "The Departed" -- that other film about crime and family and honor and trust and betrayal and death.
Can't you just hear people instantly dismissing this movie as Scorsese lite whenever they see the ads on TV? ("Oh man, they even got Marky Mark to star in this movie! They're so ripping off 'Departed'!")
But "Night" isn't Scorsese lite -- it's actually Lumet lite.
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The third film from writer-director James Gray ("The Yards"), "Night" seems to spend most of its time visibly giving props to the '70s Noo Yawk cinema Sidney Lumet excelled at. (Its first scene even begins with that disco staple, Blondie's "Heart of Glass.")
Even though it is set in 1988, this story of two brothers dealing with criminal activity is quintessential Me Decade-era retro-grime. This is funny, considering that Lumet is about to drop a film, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," also about two brothers dealing with criminal activity, which is to hit theaters later this month.
"Yards" stars Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg serve as the two brothers front-and-center in this piece. Phoenix is Bobby Green, a New York nightclub manager who has the hot connections and the even hotter girlfriend (Eva Mendes). He's also considered the black sheep of the family by his big brother (Wahlberg) and father (Robert Duvall), both NYPD cops.
When the big bro targets a drug-running Russian mobster by raiding Bobby's club, the mobster in turn seeks to take him down, putting him in the hospital. This forces Bobby to cooperate with the police and show that family ties still bind.
"Night" is mostly passable pulp that's highlighted by a couple of tensely shot sequences (a sting operation gone awry, an insane car chase that makes the climactic car chase from Tarantino's "Death Proof" section in "Grindhouse" look played out) and Phoenix's perpetually on-edge performance.
But "Night" seems to go off the rails in the third act when Gray's idea of salvation for the main character -- and I won't give it away -- feels more contrived than obvious. The out-of-character leap that makes Phoenix bounce from coke-snorting party boy to gun-wielding urban avenger seems so forced, it doesn't jibe with the rest of the crime story we've been witnessing.
But for a while there, "We Own the Night" took me back to when crime thrillers were bad -- in a good, "Serpico"/"Dog Day Afternoon" way, that is.