Monday, January 28, 2013

We Own the Night

A striking film made from highly a unpromising storyline.

It's the old wheeze about a family of cops with one black sheep who takes the left-hand path and winds up with bad, nay very bad, friends. It's 1988 and Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix) is the non-copper who runs a slick Brooklyn nightclub; his brother Joseph (Mark Wahlberg) is an NYPD detective; their father (Robert Duvall) is the deputy police chief.

Pretty unlikely to begin with; predictable that Bobby will get involved with criminals, in this case the Russian mafia, and that will lead to serious problems for everybody.

For all that, the movie is saved from banality by the assured direction of James Gray, along with consistently eye-catching cinematography by the improbably named Joaquin Baca-Asay. They and the cast put new wine into this old bottle. There's even a car chase scene that you would expect to be pure routine, but Gray shoots it, stylishly, in pouring rain and doesn't let it go on too long.

The texture and atmosphere are superb; I recognize the New York I was raised in, not glamourous Manhattan but the "bridge and tunnel" boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. If the movie didn't make much money, and I don't remember hearing anything about it in the year of its release (2007), this authenticity may be one reason nationwide audiences couldn't connect with it. The characters' accents and their ultra-ethnic-mix might have been hard for many people to comprehend even in our proud new Former United States of forced multi-culturalism.

I don't need to tell you that Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg play their roles vividly. Gray got Robert Duvall to act from the inside for a change and he has some nicely shaded, touching moments. I don't understand the appeal of duck-lipped Eva Mendes, but as Bobby's girlfriend, she's competent enough here. In fact all the actors, some of whom I suspect were non- or semi-professional, make an impression.

The Blu-ray transfer captures colors both strident and subtle. We Own the Night isn't for all tastes, but if you like its genre the movie is recommended.

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