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In yet another study of twisted loyalty, Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg return to the crime-driven New York state of mind that belongs to writer-director James Gray. The two actors starred in The Yards and attracted attention largely for a fight sequence between their characters (two boyhood friends forever on the wrong side of the law) that had the hardscrabble look and feel rarely captured on film. There wasn’t an ounce of grace or perfectly landed punches in the exchange, but Gray and his leads communicated how such aggression can be a true expression of character and deep-rooted history.

We Own The Night this time finds Phoenix and Wahlberg as brothers on opposing sides of the law. Phoenix’s Bobby Green has gone so far as to change his name from Grusinsky to hide his connection to brother Joseph (Wahlberg), a rising young gun in the New York City police department and their deputy police chief father Burt (Robert Duvall).

Bobby manages a successful nightclub in late-1980s New York that feels a like it’s stuck in the groove of a late-’70s disco track. The place is a den of powdered-drug-fueled orgies that gets left behind once Joseph leads a team of officers in to bust up a Russian drug connection.

That’s when the music dies, violence becomes the only noise that matters and loyalty the refrain that goes on and on and on and on (think The Sopranos finale). Bobby has to choose between the various families he has been born into, joined through his work or attempted to choose for himself in the form of his Puerto Rican girlfriend Amada (Eva Mendes, who for the first time has a role she disappears into rather well). Joseph and Burt seemingly don’t want him, although its never clearly stated why he chose to stray from the family business. In fact, there’s precious little about this family other than the implied bloodlines to give any sense of connection until the bullets start flying, striking targets and spilling that precious life juice.

Yet the different acting approaches of Phoenix, Wahlberg, and Duvall create in attentive viewers a recognition of something that does indeed bind these men. Phoenix burns through the nightscapes as Bobby gets drawn deeper into his own dark journey into the night. Whether quietly waiting for the action to explode or actively lighting the fuses, he brings all of the unbridled passion we have seen in his past characters (from Commodus to Johnny Cash) to light and bear here with dramatic results (which also bodes well for his upcoming appearance in Reservation Road).

Wahlberg, on the other hand, goes from what at first seems like a replay of his Oscar-nominated performance from The Departed to an understated, thoughtful investigation into a man and cop who comes to doubt and develop a fearful awareness of what could be lost in the heat and darkness of the night. Duvall straddles the line between the two, showing us where each son’s line extends from the source.

Gray has no need, this time, for Phoenix and Wahlberg to turn their sibling rage on one another. It is enough to know that it’s there, discharged from Phoenix in single flesh-piercing rounds and unreleased in Wahlberg like a grenade without an emotional pin.

But, of course, we are drawn to the explosions that light up the city’s night sky like the noonday sun, and that means Phoenix owns this film. He controls it in many ways better than even its sure-handed director who falters from time to time in moments that nag us in the darkness, preventing us from giving over completely to the dreams projected before us.

We Own The Night falls short of gritty greatness, but Phoenix’s aim is true. Grade: B- (tt stern-enzi)