October 11, 2007

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We Own the Night (R)
Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix play brothers on either side of the law in the periphery of the drug wars of the 1980s in We Own the Night, an at times laughably silly police movie with an undeserving number of good actors.

Joseph Grusinsky (Mark Wahlberg) is a New York City police officer, impressively moving up the ranks to the delight of his police chief father Burt Grusinsky (Robert Duvall). Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) is Burt’s other son. Bobby uses his mother’s last name and never talks about his father to keep his friends in the club world from knowing about his police family. Bobby manages a Brooklyn nightclub and has dreams of opening an even more successful club in Manhattan. A partier and casual user of drugs himself, Bobby either doesn’t know about or chooses not to know about the criminal organization using his club (which is owned by a Russian family) to traffic drugs. When his father and brother ask him to help with a sting operation against the drug dealers, Bobby brushes them off and heads back to the 24-hour party that is his life along with girlfriend Amanda (Eva Mendes).

The two worlds don’t stay separate for long, however. Joseph and his team raid the club in search of a Russian drug dealer, nabbing Bobby in the process. Afterwards, Bobby’s angry at his brother but not nearly as angry as the Russian’s hit man who shows up to explain, via bullets and fire bombs, why maybe it’s not so healthy to hassle the Russian drug dealer about his business. When Bobby finds out what has happened to his brother, he rethinks the course of his life and decides perhaps it’s time to get on the right side of the law.

Some two thirds into the movie (so SPOILER ALERT) Bobby decides to become a police officer and is provisionally granted police officer status to work on the Russian drug dealer case. This is, like, days from the doing-coke, hanging-out-with-criminals phase of his life. They gave him a police badge like airplane pilots used to give little kids wings. What wisps of credibility this movie still had at that point floated away.

This movie might have had family saga intentions but it played out like one of the more unbelievable mid-1990s cop dramas — the Ricky Schroeder years on NYPD Blue, maybe. So much of the story strains believability, particularly in terms of Bobby’s character, and so much of that feeling of falseness is heightened by big scores and unnecessary slow-mos.

The name “Mark Wahlberg” in a movie’s credits can be deceiving. He was entertaining in Shooter, great in The Departed and Three Kings, hokey in Invincible, campy in the Planet of the Apes. I have enjoyed enough of his performances that I’m willing to credit the less successful ones to the general lousiness of the movie rather than any serious fault of Wahlberg’s. Here, his character is a one-note, a “good cop” paper doll, a rough-outlines version of his character in The Departed. This I attribute to the script, which didn’t give any of the other actors any good material to work with either, beyond “be cop-like.”

And as wasted as Wahlberg is, he’s arguably only the third-worst-used actor in this movie. Robert Duvall is a master at creating fully realized character from almost nothing but here even he can’t puff up the material enough to create a second dimension. And Joaquin Phoenix, who would seem to be made for the role of weasely moral quandary guy, just seems silly here, almost a parody of himself.

Overall, you feel less like you’re watching a new, self-sustaining movie and more like you’re watching a riff on a bunch of better and better-known cop movies and TV shows. It’s like Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix and Robert Duvall got together to play The Departed using some made-up-on-the-spot script. C

Rated R for strong violence, drug material, language, some sexual content and brief nudity. Written and directed by James Gray, We Own the Night is an hour and 57 minutes long and will open in wide release on Oct. 12. It is distributed by Sony.