In James Gray’s “The Yards,” Mark Wahlberg played an ex-con drawn back into crime by buddy Joaquin Phoenix.
In writer-director Gray’s “We Own the Night,” Phoenix is a club manager with shady associates who’s coaxed toward the right side of the law by his cop-brother Wahlberg.
You can’t quite say Gray is repeating himself, but close enough.
Like “The Yards,” “We Own the Night” is broody to the point of anesthesia and operatic to the verge of bombast. And like its predecessor, the new film takes itself far too seriously.
It’s such a cliché to say the acting salvages the movie somewhat, but it’s true here. Wahlberg is gruffly earnest in a more sober variation of the acerbic detective he played in last year’s “The Departed,” while the normally stoic Phoenix gets to show some range — explosive anger, wilting fear — this time around.
And even when Robert Duvall phones a role in, as he does in “We Own the Night” as Wahlberg and Phoenix’s father, he elevates the story.
Set in New York in the late 1980s, the movie centers on a night spot managed by Bobby Green (Phoenix), a black sheep brother who uses his mother’s maiden name so his associates won’t know he comes from a family of policemen.
His brother, police Capt. Joseph Grusinsky (Wahlberg) and their dad (Duvall), a veteran lawman, try to enlist Bobby to keep an eye on a Russian crook suspected of operating his drug business out of the club.
Bobby huffily refuses, circumstance and bad guys intervene, and before you can say “to protect and serve,” the prodigal son finds himself forced to choose between crime or justice.
Eva Mendes is tossed in as Bobby’s girlfriend so he has something more than just his own skin to worry about.
Parts of the story strain plausibility as both police and thugs behave with extreme brainlessness. Why is it that movie cops never manage to protect people in witness protection? Why are mobster assassins able to shoot non-speaking extras in the head with pinpoint accuracy but miss the people they set out to kill?
It’s also absurd to think that Bobby’s use of his mom’s last name would prevent the major Russian outlaws surrounding him from discovering his law-enforcement lineage. Even in the pre-Google age, these guys can’t be that ill-informed.
The 1980s setting doesn’t lend anything to the drama, which plays out like a generic police thriller that could have taken place any old time (though it is a bit refreshing not to see cops and criminals jabbering on cell phones).