Seven years ago, police officer Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) guns down a suspect, setting off a firestorm of protest from the community. Fortunately, Billy has some friends high up on the totem pole, not least among them is New York City’s powerhouse mayor, Nick Hostetler (Russell Crowe), and police commissioner Carl Fairbanks (Jeffrey Wright). Hostetler isn’t exactly an above-board dealer, but he likes Billy and believes him to be a hero, so a pesky video tape gets squashed and Billy quits the force, turning to the life of a private detective.
Eventually, it’s time to return the favor to the mayor. Hostetler is embroiled in the race of his life against city councilman Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper) and to make matters worse, there’s a lot of trouble at home. As it turns out, Mayor Nicky’s lovely wife Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is out cheating on him, and it’s up to Billy to find out who she’s stepping out with. Taking this case draws Billy into a web of intrigue and corruption that he may never escape from.
Broken City is a film that’s loaded with big-name actors, with multiple Oscars and Golden Globes and whatnot between them, and truly, they bring serious energy to the material. Russell Crowe swaggers broadly from scene to scene, as if possessed by the sort of corrupt Tammany Hall politician New York doesn’t make anymore. Ditto Catherine Zeta-Jones, doing her best film noir vamping vixen in her limited role. All the while Mark Wahlberg dances between those two characters, performing a decent imitation of Jack Nicholson in Chinatown. They’re broad, but it’s amusing, and Russell Crowe makes good use of his physical abilities (particularly a great evil grin and an impressive twitch of the eyelid) in what might be the most fun performance of the movie.
It’s a really interesting mish-mash of elements, with these mannered performances (especially Zeta-Jones) counterbalanced by an incredibly pedestrian script from Brian Tucker. It’s all stuff we’ve seen a thousand times, from corrupt politicians, back-room deals, alcoholic cops, philandering wives, and all the requisite twists and turns to weave these elements into a below-average potboiler or an above-average crime-centric soap opera (the pedestrian direction by Allen Hughes of Hughes Brothers fame doens’t help that). There are some dialogue exchanges with some crackle, but it’s all laid out in a really obvious manner in the first act, and then all tied up far too neatly by the third act. It’s easy to connect the dots, despite trying really hard to obfuscate the trail.
Fortunately, what Allen Hughes lacks in style here, he makes up for in brevity. Broken City is only 109 minutes long, which is amazing considering how much plot it packs into its thin running time. The pacing is uneven, despite the run-time. The movie either flies along with giddy intensity or it gets bogged down in the political muck (or personal muck). It feels as though Hughes and Tucker have condensed an entire television season into a single movie, only keeping the good bits and bypassing some of the glue needed to hold the plot together.
While the film might be kind of a mess, it’s an amusing one. The more I think about Broken City, the more I actually kind of enjoy it. It’s not great, but there’s a certain appealing B-movie nastiness that it evokes akin to the spirit of an old RKO flick. And it’s all heightened considerably by the talent in front of the camera.
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