(CNN) -- Irony is on the outs. This fall it's fashionable to show your true colors, and moviemakers are straining to impress with the kind of moral seriousness we haven't seen in American cinema since the 1970s.
Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix play brothers at odds in "We Own the Night."
OK, so I'm not thinking of "The Heartbreak Kid" here -- though that, too, is a '70s remake -- but it is striking how James Gray's cop drama "We Own the Night" echoes last week's earnest "Michael Clayton" in style and substance, and transcends it in impact.
Both films hark back to a more somber, measured pace and muted palette, a time when movies weren't so desperate to rush us off our feet and sought to engage the mind -- not overload the senses.
In "Clayton" George Clooney plays a lawyer who needs to regain his ethical bearings. In "We Own the Night" Joaquin Phoenix is the prodigal son -- a nightclub manager in New York City in the late '80s -- who returns home to the fold, eventually earning the respect of his father and his brother, both of them detectives in the NYPD. This redemption is hard won, accomplished through suffering and personal sacrifice, and at the end we find ourselves pondering how much this sympathetic, strangely innocent soul has lost in the process.
When the movie begins, Phoenix's character, who calls himself Bobby Green, has already carved out an identity for himself. He's the main man at the El Caribe, a thriving hotspot bankrolled by a gregarious Russian businessman who treats him like a son. His loyal lieutenant is also his best friend. And he's crazy in love with his hot Puerto Rican girlfriend Amada (Eva Mendes). Everything is on the up.
Green's family, the Grusinskys, are a different tribe: Burt (Robert Duvall) is a veteran cop who can't stomach what his younger son is doing with his life. Joseph (Mark Wahlberg), Green's older brother, is the white sheep, quickly rising through the ranks and newly assigned to lead a narcotics task force that has one of Bobby's regular customers in its sights.
When Joseph is hospitalized, fortunate to have survived a point-blank shooting, Bobby realizes his old man will be targeted next and agrees to infiltrate the drug operation. The bad guys haven't guessed that Green and Grusinsky are family.
Now, you don't have to be a pop-savvy Tarantino wannabe to recognize that Gray's story might have made a serviceable vehicle for the likes of James Cagney and Spencer Tracy back in the 1930s. If you think you can guess where it's headed, you're very probably right. (And if you object that it seems improbable, I wouldn't disagree with you there either.)
But Gray takes these somewhat soiled and contrived narrative elements and shapes them into a plangent suspense thriller that's at once archetypal and subtly subversive.
Phoenix starred with Wahlberg in Gray's "The Yards" some years back, and watching him in these pictures you appreciate what a great film noir actor he would have made. There's something wounded about him, a vulnerability that's attractive but can also turn rancid. He knows something integral is broken but he desperately needs to be fixed. Eva Mendes makes a strong case that Amada is the answer to his dreams (anyone's dreams, for that matter). She's tender, sexy and assertive, ready to fight his corner if only he'll stick beside her.
But in the end blood begets blood: you can't choose your family or escape from where you came from. There will be a closing of the ranks.
Wreathed in gloom and doom, "We Own the Night" is shot with dark authority by Joaquin Baca-Asay. Three set pieces stand out. In one, a tense undercover assignment in a drug factory turns into a terrifying, savage bloodbath. In the second, a rainstorm transforms a conventional car chase into treacherous slick of chaos and confusion.
And in the third, a manhunt in a field of wild reeds becomes a hellish inferno that demands a reckoning.
In each instance, Gray pushes a generic situation to an expressionistic crisis point -- and Bobby forfeits another ounce of his humanity.
Time will tell, but from where I'm sitting this deceptively routine cop movie runs deep. In fact, it already looks like a classic. Cagney and Tracy would be proud.