James Gray wrote and directed “Little Odessa” in 1994, waited until 2000 to make “The Yards,” and has waited since then to do “We Own the Night.” The question I have is: Why the wait? It couldn’t have taken seven years to write a screenplay this leaden and uninspired. Surely something like this could be churned out in a weekend.
He’s rejoined by his “Yards” stars, Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg, who no doubt were hoping for something as substantive as their previous collaboration. Phoenix plays Bobby, a Queens nightclub manager who, in these heady times (it’s set in 1988), enjoys his cocaine and other drugs as much as the club’s freewheeling patrons do. He has not followed the same path as his brother Joseph (Wahlberg), who’s a straitlaced cop, as is their father (Robert Duvall).
Bobby’s club is owned by an old Russian man, Marat (Moni Moshonov), who treats Bobby like a son. Bobby is more affectionate with the old guy than he is with his real father, who needless to say considers Bobby something of an embarrassment. Marat’s nephew, Vadim (Alex Veadov), is an increasingly notorious drug lord, and he uses the club as a base of operations; Marat apparently has nothing to do with it. The cops — led by Bobby’s brother and dad — want Bobby to help them take down the whole enterprise. Bobby is torn between his two worlds. Et cetera.
Wahlberg and Phoenix are good enough, of course, and you can’t go wrong with Robert Duvall, and Eva Mendes, who plays Bobby’s girlfriend, is awfully pretty and doesn’t detract much except for when she speaks or tries to emote, at which point everything grinds to a halt. But still. You can ignore her.
What the film lacks is originality. There’s not a single surprise to be found, no twists on the old formula, nothing to distinguish this from a particularly gritty episode of “Hill Street Blues.” Gray manages exactly two noteworthy scenes: In one, Bobby is led into the inner sanctum of the cocaine operation, his tension and nervousness palpable to the viewer; in the other, three cars chase each other in the pouring rain, with the occupants of one vehicle shooting at the occupants in the others. Otherwise? Nada. What has Gray been doing the past seven years? I hope he wasn’t on the clock.
C (1 hr., 57 min.; )