"We Own the Night."
That motto is emblazoned on uniform patches worn by a New York City street-crime unit in the 1980s as its officers prosecute a never-ending war on drugs in the Big Apple's rotten underworld core. Among the most-wanted: the Russian mafia, who scoff at the police's hollow boast. We Own the Night chronicles the efforts of a determined police captain and his legendary police-chief father to take down a suspected Russian kingpin ... even as a rebellious brother gets caught in the crossfire.
The story pivots around Bobby Green, a wild young man who thinks he has it all: a beautiful girlfriend and a cushy job managing a popular Brooklyn nightclub. All the drinking, drugs and debauchery he can handle. And growing respect from the elderly Russian fur trader who owns the club.
But Bobby's world begins to implode when his estranged brother, newly minted police captain Joseph Grusinsky, puts him on notice: The police know that a murderous Russian drug lord named Vadim Nezhinsky frequents the club, and they're coming for him. Bobby has nothing but contempt for his brother and their father, police chief Burt Grusinsky—so much so that he's taken his deceased mother's maiden name to erase any public connection to his family. Because of those strained relationships and the fact that Vadim is his employer's nephew, Bobby refuses his brother's request for help in the sting.
The promised raid nets one of Vadim's lackeys—and stokes the cold-blooded kingpin's anger. His retribution comes in the form of a bungled hit on Joseph which leaves the police captain hospitalized for months ... and forces Bobby to decide whose side he's really on.
One street corner light amid We Own the Night's darkness illuminates family and loyalty. As the film opens, there's no love lost between prodigal Bobby and his dutiful brother and father. Bobby has a cavalier attitude toward his family and the laws that their careers represent. He treats his father with indifference, and with prejudice he dismisses Joseph's commitment to social responsibility. Joseph's shooting, however, uncovers a deep well of loyalty in Bobby's heart. He goes to see his unconscious brother in the hospital, cries and apologizes for his choices. Bobby and Joseph's brotherly bond continues to deepen and by film's end they're able to tell each other, "I love you." Joseph also apologizes to his brother for the ways he's treated him badly through the years.
[Spoiler Warning] Vadim is initially unaware of Bobby's family connection and invites him to become a major drug supplier. Bobby accepts the offer, but only after he goes to the police and agrees to carry a wire to help them shut down Vadim's operation. Bobby's bravery is his first step toward redemption, and it earns his father's praise.
Burt is a tough, principled police chief who refuses to be intimidated by the news that Vadim is gunning for him and his family. He also tells his men, "We don't ever plant dirt," meaning he's unwilling to skirt the law in order to frame bad men whom they know are criminals. He also emphasizes a strong work ethic when he tells a group of people that he raised his sons to "work first, play later." When Bobby initially offers to help the police by going undercover to nail the Russian mobster, Burt will hear nothing of it. He refuses to let Bobby put his life in jeopardy and promises his son that he'll protect him. (Bobby goes undercover, anyway, without his father's knowledge.)
Bobby's girlfriend, Amanda, mentions that she and her mother prayed for Joseph's recovery after he was shot. An invocation at a police academy graduation includes a request for God's blessing and protection for the new police officers and their families. Bobby takes a formal oath with his hand on a Bible. When confronting Vadim in the nightclub raid, Joseph mocks the Russian for wearing both a cross and a star of David.
The film opens with an explicit sex scene between Bobby and Amanda. It includes her touching herself through her skimpy negligee, him fondling her partially covered breasts and him touching her underneath her panties. It's a scene that, without displaying any graphic nudity, is exceptionally suggestive.
The two clutch, kiss and entwine several other times. And it's implied that Amanda is on the verge of moving in with Bobby. While on the run from the Russians, Amanda and Bobby share a hotel room and a bed.
Throughout the film, Amanda wears plunging necklines as well as short dresses and skirts, and revealing tank tops (without a bra underneath them). Two drunken women dance topless on a bar.
A small handful of crude and obscene jokes and references are made about intercourse and oral sex.
The NYPD plus Russian gangsters equals violent confrontations. As one of Vadim's goons is being arrested for drug possession, the drug lord tells the man in Russian that he'll kill his mother if he talks; the arrested criminal then slits his own throat. (We watch as he dies, convulsing in a pool of blood.) Joseph is shot at point-blank range—and the bullet goes through his jaw and out his cheek. The shooter also throws a Molotov cocktail into Joseph's car. Bobby stabs a mobster in the neck repeatedly, then jumps out a window, his body ricocheting sickeningly off a fence and onto concrete.
Two shootouts, one at Vadim's distribution center and another at a drug deal, leave multiple police officers and drug henchmen dead. One officer takes a bullet in the head, which Joseph can't stop fixating upon because it reminds him of his own shooting. A reckless car chase ends when a police officer is shot and his car crashes.
Police raiding Bobby's club roughly manhandle patrons suspected of drug use. Bobby and Joseph get into a fistfight. Amanda starts hitting Bobby when she's disappointed with a decision he made. A fistfight at the club ends with a bloody-faced patron being forced to leave. Bobby also hits and kicks a friend who betrays him. Crude mention is made of how the Russians dealt with an enemy: decapitating him and stuffing his genitals in his mouth.
[Spoiler Warning] Even though Vadim is surrounded in a burning field and unable to escape, Bobby (now a policeman) walks into the field and kills him with a shotgun. He isn't disciplined for this choice, nor is his taking revenge ever questioned. Bobby also tells a Russian drug lord who's been captured to get on his knees, and hands a gun to the police officer in charge of the arrests. It's unclear whether or not the cops—who've vowed not to show any restraint in pursuing these criminals—kill the man, but that possibility is hinted at.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Someone is smoking or drinking in many, if not most, scenes, especially those that take place in the club. Bobby smokes practically nonstop. Off-duty officers are shown smoking cigarettes and cigars; they also drink various forms of alcohol.
Still photos in the opening credits show police confiscating drug paraphernalia. We also see people cutting lines of cocaine at a party, and Bobby stuffs a joint up the nose of an unconscious reveler. Later, Bobby and Amanda share a joint. A guy at that party brags that he has something for everyone, including uppers, downers, hash, blow and mescaline. References to other drugs include PCP, angel dust, heroin and prescription sedatives. Vadim's henchmen cut cocaine from kilo bricks into small bags for distribution; Bobby snorts a bit of that coke to test its purity.
[Spoiler Warning] A key scene reveals how the Russians have ingeniously managed to smuggle cocaine in fake furs; a buyer tastes some of it. In the end, we also discover that a smuggler has been using his grandkids to help get cocaine into the country.
Whether it's on the small screen or the big one, grimy police stories never seem to go out of fashion. We Own the Night is therefore merely the latest. While the chemistry between Bobby and his brother and father is emotionally compelling at times (Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix, Robert Duvall and Eva Mendes all turn in nuanced performances), there's little about this film to distinguish it.
Hollywood Reporter's Kirk Honeycutt sums up its artistic merits—or lack thereof—when he writes, "So many great filmmakers have mined this territory before [director James Gray] that he is reduced to searching for scraps on the mine's floor. Why does he continually want to go up against Scorsese and Coppola—not to mention The Sopranos—with these small family dramas?"
Actually contributing to the film's inability to stand out is the fact that exactly like those filmmakers—and that HBO drama—Gray isn't shy when it comes to injecting "realistic" grittiness into the script via explicit sex scenes, drug abuse, f-words and bloody violence.
A postscript: We Own the Night is yet another in a spate of recent films, including The Brave One and Death Sentence, that tacitly approve of wreaking vengeance instead of letting the legal system do its job. All of the police officers on the scene in the finale know that Bobby intends to kill Vadim. Not only do they not stop him, there's nary a hint of censure or accountability after he does so—yet another problematic endorsement of the seductive idea that we have the right to take matters violently into our own hands when we believe "justice" might be better served that way.