Two brothers divided by crime in ‘We Own the Night’

While some people might think that this film isn’t worth watching from the previews because they’ve already seen this plot before, “We Own the Night” has plenty of surprises to offer those viewers who are willing to give it a chance. Not only are the story line and acting so great they need to be seen to be believed and appreciated, but the artistry of the film itself is also well worth the cost of admission.

While “We Own the Night” might not be deemed the freshest take on the cop-movie genre, it is still surprisingly well done.

The story is a straightforward plot of one man’s journey into a new life spurred on by heartbreak. The main character, Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix, “Walk the Line,” “The Village”), has left his family of cops (his brother and father are both officers) behind him and moved into the world of clubs and drugs. He is rebellious and unconcerned about his family and their agenda to save the world, and he wants no part of it. Yet by the end of the film he has gone through such a sharp transformational arc due to tragedy and betrayal that he is no longer the character that introduces the film.

Sharp twists and turns take the audience by surprise, and the intensity keeps the viewers on the edges of their seats. In fact, the plot featured in the onslaught of previews was completed within the first hour, leaving plenty of time left to wonder where this film was going.

Yet the movie begs a comparison to “Training Day” and “The Departed,” seeming to blend elements from both scripts. Written and directed by James Gray (“Little Odessa,” “The Yards”), the film again questions the line between good guy and bad guy, police officer and drug lord, and ultimately where one’s loyalties should lie – a story played out on the screen quite a few times in recent years.

However, this is Gray’s first mainstream film; his previous two award-winning films were produced on the independent circuit. Hopefully this film will finally garner him a reputation to continue to create and widely distribute such gifted work.

Indeed, Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg (“The Departed,” “Invincible”) must have been impressed while working together with Gray on his last film in 2000, “The Yards,” as they have jumped onto the production bandwagon with “We Own the Night.” And rightly so. There is some visually appealing film work in this movie that will long be remembered: a fresh take on the car-chase in a scene that is all the more intense because it is shot in the rain, which obscures everything that is going on; and the climax of the film, which takes place in a similar fashion in a smoke-filled cornfield, again obscuring details and increasing the intensity of the action.

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Yet for all that, the boom mike appeared in far too many scenes. It was so obvious, in fact, that several members of the audience started sniggering at its intrusion.

But even that mistake doesn’t detract from the film, with its well-written screenplay that allows the talents of the cast to flourish.

Phoenix’s performance at first doesn’t seem to be striking new territory since he’s played many rebellious characters before. Indeed, he’s known for being a bit rebellious in real life. But his character has to face some brutal realities when his brother Joseph Grusinsky (Wahlberg) is attacked and Phoenix’s performance really begins to soar, showing the depths of despair and the desperation to change.

Wahlberg also gives a brilliant performance as he too goes against the grain of his normal casting. Initially he plays a tough cop willing to take on the evils of the world, but his character also goes through a huge change after disaster strikes. He is able to show fear and devastation unlike any of his previous roles, and the audience gets to see him in a whole new light.

Even Eva Mendes’ (“Hitch,” “Ghost Rider”) performance breaks new territory for her as an actress. She plays Bobby’s serious love interest instead of the stereotypical woman who is only after money or drugs, given Bobby’s character and success in the club world. She is sultry in a way that is unlike any of her previous roles, and she too is able to bring a stellar performance that moves beyond those sexual boundaries. She doesn’t play a femme fatale or even just a sex object. Instead, her character reaches a breaking point after disaster touches her life as well, and Mendes’ portrayal of that fear, anger and sadness is very believable.

Everything that went into this film comes together in a great package despite its flaws. It is a clever piece of art that will appeal to everyone. One might even suspect it will be nominated in the upcoming Oscars, but only time will tell.