Over the course of three films Little Odessa (1994), The Yards (2000) and We Own the Night writer-director James Gray has engendered a particular kind of old-school sentimentality, where men explore the limits of loyalty and courage as they face systematic corruption. His characters reside in a rough-and-tumble New York City outside the purview of tourists, abiding by a rigid set of codes and values established generations before in their entrenched communities.
We Own the Night is Gray's most conventional film, particularly in its lack of moral ambiguity. Here, cops truly are New York's finest, upright straight-arrows so determined to stop a drug trafficker that they're willing to sacrifice the black sheep of a police family in the process.
Set in 1988, this Night feels stuck in the 1970s of decadent excess, slippery identities and harsh crackdowns. And despite being shot in sweat-soaked color, the film is decidedly black-and-white in its "just say no" righteousness.
On a seemingly ordinary night, Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) visits his two families. Walking across the street from the jam-packed Brooklyn nightclub he manages, Bobby enters the warm embrace of owner Marat Buzhayev (Moni Moshonov) and his extended Russian clan, where he's treated as a surrogate son.
Later, he takes girlfriend Amada Juarez (Eva Mendes) to Queens for a NYPD party honoring his rising-star brother, Joseph Grusinsky (Mark Wahlberg), and where their father, Burt Grusinsky (Robert Duvall), a decorated and admired deputy chief, holds court.
Without much affection for his hard-partying sibling (so lost to the Grusinsky macho tradition that he's taken their late mother's maiden name), Joseph announces he's launching a major drug sting aimed at Marat's dealer nephew, Vadim Nezhinski (Alex Veadov), a regular at Bobby's club, and wants his brother to provide them with information.
Bobby thinks he knows where he stands, but Gray quickly puts him through a testosterone-fueled rite of passage that's downright operatic in its emotional extremes and improbable reversals of fortune. What saves We Own the Night is the absolute conviction of the actors, who treat the material as a no-nonsense morality tale.
This decidedly retro police story contains all the genre touchstones, including a relentless car chase and an utter lack of irony. In Gray's fatalistic worldview, might makes right, and Bobby is forced to confront his legacy. Good cops are born, not made, he asserts, and free will is a dangerous illusion.