Broken City almost seems too good to be true. It’s close to the end of January and here arrives a film about political corruption starring two A-list actors. History has shown January to be a month where studios release films without much confidence. Every now and then you’ll get a quality release like last year’s The Grey with Liam Neeson. In this case, the producers are hopeful that any stink this bad boy gives off isn’t too bad a smell and quickly dissipates. Then it will have a quiet home video bow a few months later and no one’s the wiser. Considering a Twitter spot for Broken City was made from tweets by people who haven’t seen the film as opposed to a critical response should tell you all you need to know. “Mark Wahlberg is absolutely amazing” – just not in this movie.
Broken City‘s problems stem from being overly ambitious in its storytelling. With a short running time (less than two hours) what should have been a richly told story becomes a less involving narrative. Subplots start then end abruptly, character motivations change with little hesitation, and mere coincidence helps in developing the plot. Sitting there apathetic to the story, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a bigger, more compelling tale of government corruption at play. Why else would Oscar winners Russell Crowe and Catherine Zeta-Jones, along with Oscar nominee Mark Wahlberg and the likes of Barry Pepper, Kyle Chandler, Jeffrey Wright and Griffin Dunne (remember when he was attacked by a werewolf in London?) attach their names to the project? Wahlberg at least has an excuse; he had a vested interest as one of the producers on the project. Maybe I’m just naïve to think that Brian Tucker’s first screenplay was enough to bring these players to the table. Then I look at the list of producers (8 full-on producers, 10 executive producers, 2 co-producers, and 1 consulting producer) and begin to suspect that the original vision may have had to be changed due to time constraints and budget concerns.
In the film, Mark Wahlberg plays Billy Taggart, a street savvy New York City cop who is forced to resign after a controversial shooting. Seven years later, Billy is trying to make a living as a private investigator. A majority of his assignments involve taking photos of cheating husbands. It may sound easy, but the hard work comes from trying to collect payment. In one sequence, Billy and his feisty assistant, Katy (Alona Tal), are going back and forth with clients doing everything to make like Jerry Maguire with the exception of exclaiming “Show me the money!”
While a Billy-Katy relationship seems within the realm of possibility, Billy is with Natalie (Natalie Martinez), a beautiful, aspiring actress, who has been with him after he helped her family overcome a horrific tragedy. This relationship gives weight to Wahlberg’s character, but all it’s really doing is covering up the fact at how underwritten his role really is. The subplot involving him showing support for his girlfriend’s acting debut then subsequently falling off the wagon in a fit of jealously dissolves suddenly and the alcoholic binge seems forced since Billy mentions his seven years sobriety several scenes prior to a new client.
And that new client is the man who saw Billy on his last day as a police officer. New York City Mayor Hostetler (Russell Crowe) considered him a hero for his actions but oversaw his resignation on account of missing evidence that could open a can of worms if unearthed. Now Hostetler needs someone to track his wife, Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones), whom he suspects of infidelity. He wants pictures identifying Cathleen’s lover. The reasons are politically motivated; he’s embroiled in a tight mayoral race with democratic challenger Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper). If the story of his wife’s infidelity hit the news his poll numbers would plummet. So he offers Billy not a King’s Ransom but a nice princely tithing of fifty grand if he can get the pictures. Billy takes the assignment but starts to feel short-changed on account of all the problems that come about.
Last year with the release of Ted I wrote a piece on Mark Wahlberg going from Calvin Klein model and singing about “Good Vibrations” with his Funky Bunch to becoming one of Hollywood’s unlikely box office attractions. Pretty much coming into his own in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed alongside Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon, Wahlberg’s stock has been rising despite the occasional bad project (i.e., The Happening, Max Payne). But as Billy Taggart, his swagger is all but nonexistent. He’s stiff in role and only briefly shows how mercurial he can be. Russell Crowe brings a little bit more to his part but it is far from being a signature role for the thespian. The biggest plus of Broken City is the emergence of Alona Tal as Billy’s assistant. Having bounced around the television arena, including a recurring role on Veronica Mars (she was also show creator Rob Thomas’ second choice to play the spunky P.I.), the Israeli-born actress would star in the underrated horror flick Undocumented, a film that makes Zero Dark Thirty‘s torture debate seem insignificant by comparison.
Broken City marks the first time that director Allen Hughes has made a film without his twin brother, Albert (together they have made such films as Menace II Society, From Hell, and The Book of Eli). His interest in the project seems to stem from the idea of politicians selling out allies and acquaintances for personal gain and popular votes. While the film demonstrates some of Sidney Lumet’s best works on the subject of scandal and corruption (see Serpico), the audience is only offered sporadic glimpses of the greatness that could have been. Whether the problem is Brian Tucker’s script or the tinkering done in the editing room, the result is the same: Broken City is a broken film beyond repair.
Director: Allen Hughes
Writer: Brian Tucker
Notable Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Alona Tal, Jeffrey Wright, Barry Pepper, Kyle Chandler, Griffin Dunne, Natalie Martinez