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The quality of a corruption-themed political thriller with a star-studded cast always comes down to one thing — the script. Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Barry Pepper, Kyle Chandler and Jeffrey Wright definitely qualify Broken City for that category of film, and so all eyes are on rookie screenwriter Brian Tucker.
Billy Taggart (Wahlberg) is a New York City police detective acquitted of killing a man who got off on a rape and murder charge. The mayor (Crowe) and commissioner (Wright) know a bit more, however, and require Taggart to step down. Seven years later, Taggart is a private investigator owed a lot of money that he hasn’t seen, so when the mayor comes calling weeks before election day and asks him to find out who his wife is sleeping with, he quickly agrees. But when he completes the job he finds he’s been double-crossed and set up as an accomplice to murder.The plot is most definitely neo-noir, but the direction of Allen Hughes (one half of the Hughes brothers, the duo behind The Book of Eli and From Hell) provides it with none of that style or class. But visual flare becomes irrelevant when your audience is too preoccupied with making sense of a convoluted plot.
Tucker weaves an intriguing network of deception that keeps you from trusting any character in the movie, including even Taggart, but there are too many pieces, including barely introduced characters, that comprise the hidden truth in the story. Consequently, the film relies on heavy-handed dialogue and formula way more often that it should. Tucker tries to make it so every component of the film connects in some way, yet to do so he falls back on cliches.
A lot of the dialogue is also steered toward set-ups for sharp one-liners. These veteran actors know how to work lines of this contrived nature, but because the rest of this film doesn’t do its job, these quotes elicit chuckles more than satisfied smirks.Of all the talents, Crowe gives the film’s best performance as the shadowy Nick Hostetler, who despite preferring to keep his own hands clean, comes off as though at any moment he might roll his sleeves up and punish someone. Considering the trailer casts him as the bad guy, it’s impressive that you’ll like him for as much of the run time as you do.
The script attempts to paint Taggart as a complex main character of moral ambiguity, but he just sort of drifts in and out of likability instead. Few actors do the “man on a mission” better than Wahlberg does, but Taggart is saddled with a penchant for violence that crops up sporadically and he’s also a recovering alcoholic. And that’s in addition to his past transgressions. The conflict plays over a mayoral race between Hostetler and Jack Valliant (Pepper), which gets a lot of play despite factoring minimally into the main narrative. It’s part of the many cogs necessary to make the plot function, but it mostly results in the spouting of political rhetoric that just makes the story all the murkier.
Broken City works reasonably well in individual pieces and scenes, but as part of the master plan, they’re drawn together almost haphazardly, with some crucial details cutting across the screen in the blink of an eye. Even so, the resolution all comes down to some really simple and even cliche plot devices. There are no late twists or revelations that really turn the tide; the biggest one gets nullified almost instantly.
Any film can flash some big names and load up on reputable faces, but in this genre, script is king. Hughes is practically invisible as a director, so Tucker’s work is exposed all the more. Some strong acting really bolsters the film’s strengths, but it only goes as high as the structure it’s built upon, and that structure has enough kinks that Broken City only delivers marginal satisfaction.