Combustible Celluloid
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With: Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Eva Mendes, Robert Duvall, Moni Moshonov, Alex Veadov, Antoni Corone, Tony Musante, Danny Hoch
Written by: James Gray
Directed by: James Gray
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, drug material, language, some sexual content and brief nudity
Running Time: 117
Date: 05/25/2007

We Own the Night (2007)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Id Brother

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

James Gray's films have a certain nostalgia for the 1970s, and sometimes feature stars from that era in supporting roles. This gives his films the illusion of grit and risk, but I find the films themselves a level removed from that era, as if staring at a museum piece through a pane of glass. Nevertheless, Gray has his enthusiastic supporters, notably European critics.

Gray's third film We Own the Night reunites the two leads from his second film, The Yards (2000). They assume their same good-bad relationship: Mark Wahlberg plays the responsible cop Joseph Grusinsky, working under his father, the chief of police (Robert Duvall), whereas brother Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix) wants to avoid association with the cops and is using his mother's maiden name, Green. Complete with his hot girlfriend Amanda (Eva Mendes), things are looking up for Bobby.

It's 1988 in Brooklyn and the nightclub business is booming. It even looks like his Russian boss Marat Bujayev (Moni Moshonov) will open a club in Manhattan and put Bobby in charge. Unfortunately Joseph raids Bobby's place, which results in a retaliation, an attack on Bobby. At the same time, Bujayev's evil nephew Vadim (Alex Veadov) approaches Bobby with an offer to help traffic drugs through the club. Bobby chooses loyalty for his family and agrees to go undercover and help blow open the drug traffickers.

The movie's design is top-notch. It opens on Bobby's cavernous club with its pumping music, sexy patrons and all-around pleasure. From there, Bobby attends a celebration/ceremony for his brother, held at a local church and catered with paper cups and homemade potato salad. Even the sound system -- used for droning cop speeches -- is hollow and full of echoes, in comparison to the clear, loud pop music in the club. Each room feels like a real place, such as the police station conference room, surrounded with papers, gray metal drawers and various coffee cups.

Best of all, Gray includes three truly breathtaking action sequences, the equal of any action blockbuster made this year. When Bobby infiltrates the drug dealer's headquarters, Gray builds the suspense beautifully and over a long period of time, using only a single piano note for his score. Later, a car chase is filmed almost entirely through the windshield of one car, in the pouring, pounding rain, using only the windshield wipers for accompaniment. Finally, we get our final shootout, filmed in a field of tall reeds, also with an innovative under-use of music.

Yes, it's all fairly predictable, and like The Yards, it wants to evoke a 1970s feel and fails -- mainly because it's no longer the 1970s. But Gray still directs with intelligence and patience, winding his way around the conventions with rich, believable characters.

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