Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: The latest Fast & Furious movie has been pushed back a full year, so why not cope with its absence by checking out some other movies with car chases in them?
Sometimes the difference between classical and clichéd is a matter of conviction. We Own The Night walks the thin (blue) line between the two, ultimately staking its claim to the better side of it. On paper, the third feature from writer-director James Gray is familiar to a fault: a brooding cop drama about two brothers—one badged, the other not, both caught in the long shadow of their lawman father—who are drafted into the war between the police and the Russian mob. But while the film doesn’t break a lot of new ground for its genre of choice, Gray’s sturdy, old-school craftsmanship and the committed performances elevate the more archetypal aspects. In its best moments, We Own The Night pumps some real soul and electricity into its recycled conventions—including, especially, one uniquely harrowing car chase in the pouring rain.
Much of the movie plays like Gray’s gloss on The Godfather, the focus flipped from one side of the law to the other, and complete with cinematography by Joaquín Baca-Asay that recalls the dark shadows and rich tones of Gordon Willis’ iconic lensing. Here, the Michael Corleone figure is Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix, in the second of four performances he’s delivered for Gray), black sheep in a family of cops. It’s 1988, and Bobby runs a hopping nightclub in Brighton Beach, keeping secret his blood ties to the fuzz—partially to protect his stature in a sometimes shady industry, but also as a middle finger to his disapproving dad (Robert Duvall), who’s deputy chief of the NYPD. But when his police-captain brother, Joseph (Mark Wahlberg, who costarred with Phoenix in Gray’s previous film, The Yards), gets shot on orders from a Russian mobster who frequents the club, Bobby finds himself pulled into the family business.
The title comes from the motto of Joseph’s real-life unit, Street Crimes, which was disbanded in 2002, largely thanks to an internal investigation that unearthed years of racial profiling. An elegant opening photo montage hints that We Own The Night might delve into that unsavory history—we see some black-and-white images of black and brown faces pressed against walls by the boys in blue. Gray, though, never explicitly broaches the subject. He paints the NYPD in more mythic-tragic terms: an unavoidable fate for Bobby, the life and living he’s managed to avoid well into adulthood, until loyalty to family pushes him down a road to violence in the name of duty. It’s a conflict that, again, might charitably be described as time-honored. But the performances locate some wrenching emotional truth in it; Phoenix and Eva Mendes, who plays Bobby’s girlfriend, gradually release the vitality they establish in the opening scenes, deflating like balloons into husks of their former selves. If nothing else, there’s novelty to a cop drama that presents getting on the straight and narrow—and giving up the hedonistic pleasures of the nightlife to meet your family’s expectations—as the self-destructive choice.
The film would probably benefit from another hour of runtime, to flesh out relationships (including Bobby’s hastily sketched bond with a surrogate father figure) and add more texture to elements that still feel a little borrowed. In the years that followed, Gray would better master the epic in miniature, offering distinctive variations on the sweeping immigrant story, the explorer adventure, and the space odyssey. But if his aspirations here sometimes outpace the material, there’s no denying the man’s way with a set piece. The best of We Own The Night’s action-suspense corkers is a desperate pursuit through Brooklyn traffic staged entirely from Bobby’s obscured behind-the-wheel vantage. The rain may be fake (Gray added it in post), but the panic seems very real; it’s a chase scene of uncommon intensity, enhanced through the locked perspective, the low visibility caused by the weather, and Phoenix’s credible terror. (One great, empathetic detail: Bobby hysterically checking to see if Mendes’ character, taking cover in the backseat, is okay—something people in car-chase movies almost never do.) For an unbearably tense few minutes, We Own The Night offers more than pastiche. It gives us a jolt of the new.