Brothers, loyalty, the Russian mob and New York City's outer boroughs continue to fascinate filmmaker James Gray, whose "We Own the Night" marks his third feature in a dozen years following "Little Odessa" and "The Yards." It's a bare-knuckled crime drama set in 1988 that stylistically could have been made that year and emphasizes Gray's strengths as a director while drawing attention to his limitations as a writer.
"We Own the Night" reunites "The Yards' " Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg as brothers whose chosen vocations come into conflict. Phoenix plays Bobby Green (born Grusinsky), a Brooklyn club manager who likes to put some distance between himself and his familial ties to the NYPD by using his mother's maiden name. Those ties would include his newly promoted brother, Joseph (Wahlberg), and their deputy-chief father, Burt (Robert Duvall), who embody the notion that the bonds of the police force are at least as tight as those of blood.
Phoenix cuts a coolly decadent figure as black sheep Bobby, with his Puerto Rican girlfriend, Amada (Eva Mendes), on his arm as he swoops through his lavish club, El Caribe. The wicked grin on his face belies the fact that the success he is enjoying running the place for Russian fur importer Marat Bushayev (Moni Moshonov) is the first he has had as an adult.
Raining on that parade are his father and brother who ask Bobby to keep an eye on a fast-rising drug dealer, Vadim Nezhinski (Alex Veadov), who operates out of the club and is Marat's nephew. Bobby resists, placing his entrepreneurial responsibilities over family obligations and sets in motion a series of events that seal his destiny.
The indisputable focal point of the film, Phoenix successfully infuses Bobby's swagger and torment with charisma and brooding melancholy. Wahlberg and Duvall are strong in roles well within their wheelhouses and Mendes and Danny Hoch, as Bobby's grinning flunky, liven up stock characters.
Gray's strong suits are the big emotional scenes that play out among his lead characters and the action set pieces that give the movie a sense of urgency.
Less assured are major plot points that stretch -- and in some cases, snap -- the suspension of disbelief. Bobby's attempt to tread the murky region between good and evil unravels predictably and though his fate carries the seeming inevitability of Greek drama, it also bears some of the contrivance.
However, if you're able to let all of that go, Gray's skill with meting out suspense pays considerable dividends. From an opening montage of black-and-white stills nostalgically depicting a pre-Giuliani/Bratton NYPD that slams into a Blondie-powered entry into Bobby's world, the film crackles viscerally. The implied pungency of sex, sweat and cigarettes permeates most scenes recalling the gritty cop dramas of the 1970s and '80s, at least in tone and temperament.
"We Own the Night." MPAA rating: R for strong violence, drug material, language, brief nudity. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes. In general release.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times