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Broken City tells a sordid tale of big-city corruption that would have made for a fine film noir 60 years ago but feels rather contrived and unbelievable in the setting of contemporary New York.
In his first solo directorial outing without brother Albert, Allen Hughes uses an attractive and more-than-capable cast to compel interest in a revenge story involving multiple duplicitous individuals. However, it’s never really convincing that the characters would do some of the far-fetched things required of them by the script, resulting in a sense of detachment that is never helpful for a thriller. Star Mark Wahlberg scored reasonably well in mid-January last year with the OK action drama Contraband, and this one should roughly follow suit.
Who was the last mayor of New York City to automatically offer a Scotch to every visitor to enter his office? Bloomberg? Giuliani? Dinkins? Koch? You’d probably have to go back long before any of them. And yet that’s what Russell Crowe‘s Mayor Nicolas Hostetler routinely does, and he’s mildly offended if you refuse. He’s the sort of white, old-time, neighborhood guy who hasn’t ruled New York in decades, the first of a number of anachronisms in first-time screenwriter Brian Tucker‘s yarn, which would have seemed more at home in a period movie than in one very much set in the present.
Playing one of his patented working-class stiffs who often makes mistakes and then spends most of his time trying to compensate for them, Wahlberg is Billy Taggart, a tough cop whose overreaction on a murder investigation gets him kicked off the force but nonetheless wins the admiration of the mayor.
Just scraping by seven years later as a private investigator — as one character asks, “Do private eyes still exist?” — Taggart is paged by the mayor for a very personal job: He’s to follow and photograph Hostetler’s wife Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and the man with whom he’s convinced she’s having an affair. It’s a matter of some urgency, as the next mayoral election is in a few days.
Because it involves voyeurism, silences and the danger of being noticed, the section involving Taggart’s pursuit of the surreptitious couple is probably the best in the film, and it has a good payoff: The guy, Paul Chandler (Kyle Chandler), is the campaign manager of Hostetler’s mayoral race opponent Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper), which is just the first of several surprises involving connections, compromised individuals and double-crosses that superficially highlight Tucker’s script, which contains a preponderance of very on-the-nose, plot-driven dialogue.
Meanwhile, the temperamental Taggart has a rude awakening when he grumpily attends the premiere of an indie film starring his girlfriend Natalie (Natalie Martinez) and is forced to endure watching her getting it on with her co-star onscreen, something he quickly presumes extended to extracurricular activity.
In short order come a murder, perfunctory chases and far too many people doing things and turning up in places that seem highly unlikely just before a big election. That the system is corrupt is clear at the outset and clear at the end, but little that happens in between adds complexity or deeper insight into this political condition.
Hughes’ direction is haphazard; some scenes seem perfunctory — even useless — others never find their dramatic centers, a few are all right. Production designer Tom Duffield and cinematographer Ben Seresin make it all look good and ably disguise the fact that most of this very New York film was shot in New Orleans.
Wahlberg, who also co-produced, does his bulldog blue-collar thing with practiced determination. Crowe is amusingly loquacious and sure of himself as the city’s unquestioned boss man and would have been entirely convincing had the film been set in the 1930s. Zeta-Jones looks like class itself and nicely underplays, while Jeffrey Wright has the intriguingly ambiguous role of the city commissioner who’s been around long enough to have the goods on everyone.
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