‘We Own This City’ Review: HBO Max Crime Drama Is a Match Made in Heaven

The new series comes from “The Wire” creator David Simon

A gritty crime drama that pairs one-time Baltimore journalist David Simon (“The Wire,” “Homicide: Life on the Streets”) and hard-boiled author George Pelecanos (“The Deuce,” also with Simon) is a match made in heaven for lovers of Baltimore Noir. For those of us who consider “The Wire” the best American crime drama ever broadcast, this is cause for celebration.

As directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green (“King Richard”), and set in the tumultuous years before and after the killing in police custody of 25-year-old African American Freddie Grey for possession of a legal knife in April 2015, we see a city on edge. Citizens armed with cell phones don’t trust the police; and the deeper we dive into the corrupt Baltimore Police Department Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF) led by charismatic wild-man Wayne Jenkins (a kickass, perfectly cast Jon Bernthal) it’s clear why. In a city submerged in guns, drugs and cash, the cops think they own Baltimore. Protect and serve? Fuggedaboutit.

Based on the book of the same name by “Baltimore Sun” reporter Justin Fenton, this volatile and labyrinthine six-part mini-series begins in 2017 and traces the rise and fall of the Gun Trace Task Force. It opens with a monolog, a strategy that reflects the confidence of creators Pelecanos-Simon. Officer Jenkins delivers a five-minute lesson in his theories of policing to a group of new recruits for his task force. It’s the crime equivalent of a preface. As the black and white men in uniform nod and note and listen, we realize that the bravado of Jenkins’ version of life on the streets, his jocularity and discussions of police brutality and community violence, doesn’t adequately describe the task force in practice.

Yes, Jenkins and his crew (among the excellent ensemble are Thaddeus Street, Darrell Britt-Gibson and McKinley Belcher III) get guns off the street. But their raids, aided by confidential informers, are anarchic armed break-ins, viscerally recorded on screen. The opening could have started here with an adrenaline kick, but the literary show-runners know the power of patience.  In these scenes, women scream and children hide, as the cops in bullet-proof vests go Fort Apache, tossing townhomes and apartments for their stashes of guns and drugs. And, when they encounter cash far beyond what their pensions ever offer, they gleefully stuff the illicit gains down their vests and into their sticky pockets. These are not the good guys; they’re just empowered by the law and protected by their badges.

As the mini-series bounces back and forth in time, sometimes losing the first-time viewer in the process, the other strands of the story come into focus. Wunmi Mosaku, Emmy-worthy in “Lovecraft Country,” plays Nicole Steele, an attorney assigned to the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice – and the show’s voice of reason and the rule of law as she puts together the pieces of the vast web of corruption that extends beyond the police into the local government. Dagmara Dominczyk (“Succession”) is dogged and restrained as an FBI agent investigating the GTTF. Baltimore native Josh Charles surprises, playing against pretty boy type (“The Good Wife”) as the poster child for BPD brutality, his hair thinning, his smile malicious, his gut sagging and his racism unchecked. He’s the worst cop in a department brimming with bad officers.

This isn’t a cop show with a side of soap opera – it’s a bourbon shot straight up. Filmed in Baltimore, the mid-Atlantic metropolis that gave birth to John Waters and was home to Edgar Allan Poe, this is a dark vision of an American city where the battle against police corruption can only be won by shining the light of truth. And, even then, as the story shifts back and forth in time, and from player to player, examining endemic corruption as a living organism, “We Own This City” doesn’t offer false promises that the crisis is fixed now, or in the near term.

 “We Own This City” debuts on HBO Max on April 25th.