“We Own the Night” Cast:
Joaquin Phoenix as Bobby Green
Mark Wahlberg as Joseph Grusinsky
Robert Duvall as Burt Grusinsky
Eva Mendes as Amada Juarez
Tony Musante as Jack Shapiro
Antoni Corone as Michael Solo
Alex Veadov as Vadim Nezhinski
Katie Condidorio as Hazel
Burton Perez as Antonio
Directed by James Gray
“American Gangster” Cast:
Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas
Russell Crowe as Detective Richie Roberts
Cuba Gooding Jr. as Nicky Barnes
Josh Brolin as Det. Trupo
RZA as Jones
John Ortiz as Javy Rivera
Ted Levine as Toback
Yul Vazquez as Detective Alphonse Abruzzo
Common as Turner Lucas
Ruby Dee as Mrs. Lucas
Robert Funaro as McCann
Malcolm Goodwin as Jimmy Zee
Directed by Ridley Scott
Note: This Double Feature Review is presented in the interest of giving those trying to decide between two upcoming New York-based police/crime dramas which one’s right for them.
Who knows if there’s something in the air or it’s just a coincidence that two filmmakers were inspired to explore the world of crime and drugs in New York’s past and that both movies are being released within a month of each other. James Gray’s “We Own the Night” and director Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster” give two glimpses into the world of New York crime at rarely explored times in the not too distant past, but neither movie would probably get nearly as much attention if not for Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” and its success at reinvigorating interest in the modern crime drama.
Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster” is based on the true story of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) an enterprising thug from Harlem who’s able to turn a simple idea into a billion dollar drug enterprise, becoming a drug kingpin in the ’70s when most of the drugs were being distributed by the Italian mobs. Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is the first to realize what Lucas is up to, starting a complex sting operation with his undercover drug task force to take Lucas down.
If the fictionalized “We Own the Night” were to be believed, the police corruption of the ’70s is gone by the time that Robert Duval’s Burt Grusinsky becomes the Brooklyn police chief in 1988. It follows Burt’s two sons, police officer Joseph (Mark Wahlberg) and nightclub manager Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix), and the conflict that arises when the former raids the Brooklyn club of the latter to try to bring down a Russian drug kingpin. Things aren’t nearly as cut-and-dry in this story as it is in “American Gangster” because Gray has created an intricate story to support the relationship between the two brothers, and it introduced numerous twists that ultimately force Bobby into hiding when the Russian mob who trusted him learn that his father and brother are cops.
Both films are rich, research-intensive films in similar but differing environments, separated by 15 years, but while Gray has upped his game with “We Own the Night,” Scott sets aside his normal sense of style and flair for a grittier film that subscribes liberally from the Scorsese playbook. “American Gangster” offers very little that we haven’t seen before in movies like “Scarface” or “Blow,” and sometimes, it’s obvious that Scott is aping Scorsese’s style of editing and his use of music rather than creating his own vision for his first foray into the crime genre. Gray’s movie takes police movie archetypes and creates something unique and far more personal that’s filled with true drama and emotion, something sorely lacking from Scott’s film. It’s also redeemed by a true sense of dramatic tension that builds as the story unfolds and you never know what’s going to happen to Bobby next, while “Gangster” tends to be more of a documentary that follows Lucas’ rise to fame and Roberts’ investigation into the drug trade.
That’s not to say that “American Gangster” doesn’t have a lot of exciting moments like when Lucas doles out violent retribution on anyone who screws with him, and yet, these aren’t the movie’s most impressive scenes, nor does it have anything that comes close to the amazing “chase scene” in “We Own the Night.” As one of the most action-packed moments in a movie driven more by character interaction, Gray shoots and cuts the sequence in an original way, almost as if we’re seeing it from the perspective of Bobby, who’s powerless to act against events unfolding before him. It’s a great tension-filled sequence in a film full of them. Coincidentally, both movies offer climactic scenes in drug rooms filed with piles of coke or heroin, and while Scott gets cinematic points for the scale of his shoot-out and the naked women he throws into the mix, Gray’s scene offers far more tension since we always feel like Bobby is in grave danger, which is rarely the case with Roberts’ team.
Phoenix’s emotionally rich performance also offers the most weight and impact of anything in either movie. Continuing his stream of moody, mumbling characters, that familiarity is counter-balanced by Bobby’s inner struggle in deciding whether to give up his cushy lifestyle to join his brother and father on the police force drives that movie. “American Gangster” is more about Denzel’s cool and calm delivery as Lucas, something we’ve seen him do so many times before, which makes Crowe’s Richie Roberts a far more interesting character, especially in the scenes where we see him dealing with his personal life. Playing a police officer isn’t much of a departure for Wahlberg after “The Departed” but his character isn’t nearly as rich or fun as that movie’s wiseass police sergeant.
“We Own the Night” is all about the relationship and conflict between the two brothers, but “Gangster” also deals with family in the way Lucas buys a huge mansion for his aging mother and bringing his brothers from North Carolina up to help him in the drug business. By comparison, Roberts is losing touch with his family due to the time he spends working on his cases. Unfortunately, we only see the two characters together in the last ten minutes of the movie, and it’s clearly the best scene of the movie, but it quickly comes to an end leaving you wanting more, which isn’t necessarily a good thing for a movie that’s already needlessly long at 2 and a half hours. At times, Gray’s film goes a bit overboard with the drama, and it also sometimes loses its credibility like when Bobby is inducted into the police force to help his brother take down the Russian mob.
At least Gray’s film offers a strong supporting cast that includes Eva Mendes in one of her better roles as Bobby’s Puerto-Rican girlfriend and tie to his former life, and the always great Robert Duval. Washington and Crowe have a far more diverse supporting cast that includes actors Cuba Gooding Jr., Chiwetel Ejiofor and rappers Common and RZA, but none of them leave quite the impression that Josh Brolin does as a corrupt New York police detective who straddles the line between the two men. It’s another great character role for Brolin in a year full of them, and Ruby Dee also does some great work as Lucas’ aging mother who shares one of the movie’s strongest scenes when she finally learns what her boy does for a living.
“American Gangster” is an entertaining, masterfully-crafted crime flick even if it isn’t altogether original or groundbreaking compared to Ridley Scott’s classic films, maybe because it seems too much like “Scott does Scorsese.” “We Own the Night,” on the other hand, is something special, an old school character-driven police drama that comes from the heart of a filmmaker who’s clearly in complete sync with his cast and crew.