Police drama is more often the fodder of television series than of film directors, so We Own the Night takes a brave step in portraying eighties New York policemen battling against an increasingly out-of-control drug culture. A unique and sometimes probing look at the individuals caught up in large scale drug trafficking and the people who try to prevent it, this film twists and turns and sizzles with tension, but somehow fails to leave a lasting impression.
A series of interesting choices mark the film, not least the decision to tell the story from the point of view of Bobby Green (Phoenix), a club manager and implausibly nave party boy who acts as a go between for the opposing worlds of police and drug dealers. Immersed in a good-time scene, Bobby has little empathy with his distanced brother and father who have devoted their lives to the police force, until an investigation into a professional drugs ring leads them to raid his club.
Thrown suddenly into a battle between his police relatives and his drug dealing friends, Bobby turns his back on his family until his brother is shot and Bobby realises that good times come at a high price. Psychologically plausible, Bobby is the wild boy with a good heart. Unable to cope with having contributed to his brothers vicious attack he turns informant and begins infiltrating the underworld he has such close access to. But Bobby is treading a fine line and soon falls deeper into both worlds than he had ever intended.
We Own the Night avoids the trappings of standard us-against-them crime drama and moves seamlessly between the perspective of the club dwellers and the police. Unfortunately it fails to live up to the promise of impartiality, and disappointingly lapses into patronising finger-wagging as Bobby becomes aligned more and more with the police, while the criminals begin to take on the dress and mannerisms of Bond villains. The film swings so far from showing any sort of depth quality in its criminals that at one point Bobby emerges hero like from a burning field, clad in a ruffed up police uniform, while an implausibly greasy and pony tailed villain dies at his feet – presumably we are meant to cheer this uneasy moment of judgement.
Director and writer James Gray has captured the poetic beauty of no-frills Eighties crime-ridden New York fantastically, and Eva Mendes should be commended for giving a sterling performance as the devoted girlfriend, Amada, willing to stick by her man despite the disapproval of his conservative police family. All the more painful is it therefore that Gray couldnt see that Bobbys transformation into police confident would be much more interesting if Amada was allowed to accompany him. Similarly, a promising storyline rears its head as Bobby realises that the man he called his second father was behind the death of his biological father, only to be knocked back down when Bobby unemotionally gives over all the information he has about him to enable his capture.
Full of the promise that at last we will be told a crime story where both the police and the criminals are given development, We Own the Night fails to please with a mishandled tale of good over evil. Caught between gritty crime drama and morality play, We Own the Night could perhaps be praised for straddling a difficult boundary if it didnt fall flat, from being free of stereotypes and clichs. It is a brave effort and full of strong performances, but sadly lacking the confidence to really pose any challenging questions. Not enough grit to earn respect for its realist qualities, and not enough varnish to be enjoyed as pure entertainment. We Own the Night is a promise that is never quite kept.