A few rare dramas about crime, honor, and justice — The Godfather, The Verdict, Munich — have attained a mythological quality. The writer-director James Gray is desperate to make a movie that would join their ranks, but the trouble with his films, which include Little Odessa, The Yards, and the new We Own the Night, is that he doesn’t earn mythology. He imposes it from above.
Set in New York in the high party days of 1988, We Own the Night tells the charged tale of two brothers. Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix), a dissolute hellion with a crooked smile and a diamond stud in his ear, manages a vast nightclub built out of an old movie theater. Joseph (Mark Wahlberg), his opposite number, is a decorated cop assigned to a narcotics task force, which leads him to shake down a drug dealer operating out of Bobby’s club. I won’t divulge more, except to say that the film is full of showy set pieces, and a handful of them are smashingly done. A variation on the guy-wearing-a-wire-during-a-drug-deal bit had me sucking in my breath; a car chase shot in the drenching rain is violent, tumultuous, and original. And yet…the story is too patterned and too contrived. (How could a hustler like Bobby be this naive about the club’s ”kindly” owner?) It’s like a more abstract Godfather in moral reverse, with one key figure undergoing a transformative spiritual rebirth I never fully bought. Gray is a far better director than he is a writer. He’s got the talent to make great movies. He just needs to stop trying to. B-