Broken City plunges us headlong into the zoo of modern New York City, where we find disgraced ex-cop Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) working as a paparazzi-style private eye, taking beatings and earning ire, while being stiffed on payment by deadbeat customers. Billy gets a chance to return to the big leagues when his old acquaintance, Mayor Hostetler (Russell Crowe), calls him in for a favor: follow Cathleen Hostetler (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the mayor’s wife, to find out who she is having an affair with.
Billy thinks the gig is easy money, but when his investigation is implicated as part of a high-profile murder, Taggart gets wise to a chess game of power involving politics, corruption and urban plight, in which he is just a pawn.
With Broken City, director Allen Hughes (Book of Eli) and newcomer screenwriter Brian Tucker had pretty lofty ambitions – but unfortunately, those ambitions are thwarted by a film that falls flat on its face in terms of both directorial and narrative execution. It’s a shame, because there is more thought and intelligence woven into this crime drama tale – only that wisdom is somehow lost in translation to the screen.
While marketed as a standard hard-boiled crime thriller, the movie is in fact an attempt at more subtle and layered commentary on many areas of city life. The title of the film is the biggest clue into what Hughes and Tucker are going for: “Broken City” is a general reference to the hypocrisies and injustices of “the system” that governs every level of urban America – as well as serving as a reference to the “broken” people who exist within that system. It could’ve been a scathing and effective commentary on very real issues (much like Se7en used crime-thriller conventions in its sly commentary on the squalid state of urban America in the ’90s); but instead, what we get is a somewhat scatter-brained narrative, populated with characters who are so compromised or unsympathetic (in one way or another) that it’s hard to root for or relate to any of them.
Both Wahlberg and Crowe turn in good performances (Crowe especially hams it up with his pseudo-New Yorker accent and braggadocio) – but again, those performances are only bringing to life misconceived characters in a flawed narrative, so it’s hard to applaud them all that much. Billy should be our protagonist, but with his on-and-off again alcoholism, indiscriminate brutality, questionable morals (and implied homophobia), it’s hard to know how to take the character, all things considered. Somewhat less murky is Crowe’s status as the villain in the piece – but given the surrounding characters, even a clear-cut bad guy seems less bad (comparatively speaking) by the time the end credits roll.
The supporting players are no better: Jeffrey Wright (Casino Royale) plays a NYPD commissioner whose morals and loyalties are always in flux; Zeta-Jones plays the put-upon political wife whose “suffering” is padded by her own compliance with the socialite world she inhabits; Barry Pepper (True Grit) plays mayoral election challenger Jack Valliant, whose surname belies the many moral compromises he’s made in the name of a “greater” political good; Alona Tal (Supernatural) plays Katy, Billy’s young secretary at the P.I. firm who is supposedly the film’s ‘moral center’ (though her quasi-flirtatious relationship with Billy is often more confusing than wholesome); Griffin Dunne (House of Lies) plays an ego-maniacal business mogul who cares more about money than people, while James Ransone (The Wire) plays his son, who would do good in the world if he wasn’t so spineless.
Natalie Martinez (End of Watch) drives a baffling subplot as Billy’s actress girlfriend, Natalie, whose big break in an independent film carries its own message about the nature of the film industry, and the moral compromises that are made in the name of art. It’s a pretty incongruous addition to a crime drama story, to say the least, and is but one example of how Tucker and Hughes spread their focus far too thin. Only Kyle Chandler’s (Zero Dark Thirty) character, Paul Andrews, seems to stand for anything in any kind of morally relatable way, and Chandler manages to bring some much-needed level-headed analysis in a key monologue delivered early on in the film.
Allen Hughes is better known for the projects he’s put out alongside his brother, Albert Hughes - Menace II Society, Dead Presidents, American Pimp, From Hell, Book of Eli – and in many ways, Broken City is an experiment to see what happens when you break the pair up. Bottom line: the experiment is not successful. While Hughes is a competent director, there are moments in Broken City when the visual composition falls apart completely (a scene on a nighttime balcony between Wahlberg and Zeta-Jones looks like it was shot on someone’s Camcorder) – and in general, the finer points of direction (like the tone of a scene) miss their intended marks.
Tucker’s script is no help, as the writer seems more concerned with indulging in every little commentative thought he had about the state of urban existence, rather than telling a more focused story whose themes may have been more effective than this muddled tale we are forced to sift through for meaning. After further examination, it seems the story attempted to convey Billy’s journey from a place of personal denial to acknowledgement of his own “broken” morality – and then, tried to marry that character arc to the larger mystery involving Mayor Hostetler. However, the film just never gets there – in any way, shape or form.
Even conventional story beats are mishandled: the film plays like it’s building to some sort of grand twist or reveal (which you’ll see coming WAY in advanced); but when we ultimately at arrive at that “climax,” most competent viewers will recognize that A) the “twist” is one the story outright reveals from the very beginning, and B) it’s a “twist” that was directly acknowledged in the very first trailers for Broken City (see below) – as though it was part of the story’s premise all along. Needless to say, the payoff of the film is a resoundingly hollow thud.
Broken City is only worthwhile for die-hard fans of the actors involved, or those who don’t need a clear narrative to enjoy a gritty odyssey through the underbelly of NYC. Add to that list those who hold morbid curiosity to see Allen Hughes out own his own, and you have the narrow niche of appeal this movie holds. Definitely not worth a theater ticket – not even necessarily worth a future rental. Considering the talent involved, it’s a shame that it is ultimately the film itself which is (wait for it)… broken.
Broken City is now playing in theaters. It is 109 minutes long and is Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence.