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Review

Solid acting lights up 'We Own the Night'

Mark Wahlberg (left) and Joaquin Phoenix play Brooklyn brothers. Mark Wahlberg (left) and Joaquin Phoenix play Brooklyn brothers. (Anne Joyce)

James Gray's new cops-vs.-drug-lord melodrama, "We Own the Night," is not a great movie. It's long and extremely slight, like a sheet of paper that aspires to be steel. But the movie has a great title, great hair (the best career choice Eva Mendes has yet made is letting the film's stylists have her look like Taylor Dayne), one great defenestration, and, because Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg do a lot of the talking, great mumbling. Two of the movies' master mutterers, they supply a double tour-de-force of indifference to enunciation, steamrolling the English language until it sounds like some other dialect.

They play the Grusinskys, estranged Polish-American brothers in 1988 Brooklyn. Bobby (Phoenix) manages a hangar-size, Russian-operated nightspot called El Caribe, and does his share of smoking, snorting, and drinking with his hood ornament of a girlfriend (Mendes). Conveniently, Joseph (Wahlberg) has just been promoted to captain of an NYPD narcotics unit and, since one of his targets, a scary fellow named Nezhinski (Alex Veadov), might be operating out of El Caribe, he would like his brother's help in catching him. Bobby has been using his late mother's surname (it's Green), and the last thing he wants is for his clubland bosses and buddies to know about his law enforcement bloodline - Papa Grusinsky (Robert Duvall) is a police chief.

It's almost not worth mentioning which actor plays which brother, since the descriptions seem self-explanatory. If you'd like to see Mark Wahlberg coked-up in a disco trading deep, noisy kisses with Eva Mendes, I'll sign the petition. But Wahlberg's Dirk Diggler days seem firmly, prematurely behind him. Joseph is an upstanding family man with a drug war to win. A grim turn of events provides Bobby with an opportunity to redeem himself in his family's eyes - and Phoenix with an occasion to brood, wail, and smolder.

Bobby is a confused character, a black sheep who too suddenly wants back into the flock. Everything about this character would seem silly if Phoenix didn't seem to feel every ounce of him in his soul. As refreshing as it would have been for him and Wahlberg to switch parts, only Phoenix could convince you of the wealth of ambivalence roiling this man.

Having directed Phoenix and Wahlberg together before, James Gray doesn't appear to want to mess with a good thing. But in merely making "We Own the Night" with these two, he kind of has. His last Brooklyn outing with them, "The Yards," a movie about a guy who goes to jail to protect his gangster buddy, was a find: an atmospheric, eerily quiet thriller with a duplex of Hollywood acting. On this floor: Faye Dunaway, Ellen Burstyn, and James Caan. And on this one: Phoenix, Wahlberg, and Charlize Theron. You miss the mixed constellations in this movie, which Gray had incredible control over. "The Yards" was so unhappy and sunless that only in the strictest sense could it not have been considered a vampire picture.

"We Own the Night" is another, somewhat inferior helping of same. The story follows conventions the previous movie didn't seem aware of - there's not much he can do with cops and kingpins; the movie's plot points are like dull coordinates on a moral-urban grid. Gray seems content to have made a yarn with interesting nightlife scenes. The movie's 1988 doesn't seem a month past 1979. Bobby's club is still playing Blondie. And the vibe - shirts as open as windows, thick gold neck chains, all the snarling - seems in pursuit of some "Saturday Night Fever" frontier. The spirit is pure Sidney Lumet, that powerfully urban-minded director whose grit and fury are in the Hollywood bloodstream right now. Why do the movies lust after him suddenly?

Gray isn't the electrician Lumet was. At his best, Lumet could light up that grid. But Gray's movies, including his blistering 1994 debut, "Little Odessa," burrow under New York's surface with a raw, jazzy grace of their own. The final shot in "We Own the Night" is unexpectedly moving. The textures are thick and the color vividly local - urine yellows and fish-tank greens. The sound design sleekly conjures up the ominousness of certain horror films. And the movie's climactic car chase is as absurdly thrilling as it is innovative. Set almost silently in a blue-gray daytime downpour, it has a tough, improvisatory danger that makes the movie. If John Coltrane went in for action sequences, he'd have dug this one.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris @globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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We Own the Night

Written and directed by: James Gray

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Eva Mendes, and Robert Duvall

At: Boston Common, Fenway, Boston, Kendall Square, Cambridge, and suburbs

Running time: 117 minutes

Rated: R (strong violence, drug material, language, some sexual content, and brief nudity)

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