Broken City seemingly has all of the ingredients to be one of those action/dramas that is so cheesy it delivers – there’s Mark Wahlberg being tough, there’s Russell Crowe with a horrendous spray tan and a Donald Trump-lite combover, there’s Catherine Zeta-Jones with an equally horrendous spray tan, and there’s director Allen Hughes, who has some street cred as one half of The Hughes Brothers directing team. And corrupt politician dramas are usually fairly entertaining, right? Not so much here. Broken City, instead, is largely a misfire. The film’s plot meanders and leaves many open threads, likely the result of re-edits, and none of the characters are particularly likable. There’s just so much a balls out Russell Crowe performance can save a movie, and shockingly enough, Crowe doesn’t even have all that much screen time.
The film opens with Wahlberg’s NYC Detective Billy Taggert shooting someone in the head in a NYC housing project, Bolton Village – he has a beard, so clearly, he is coded as being troubled. He is tried (now beardless), since his self-defense plea is questionable at best. There is evidence that surfaces that can put him away, but Republican-seeming Mayor Nicolas Hostetler (Crowe) decides to keep that evidence for his own eventual gain, allowing Taggart to go free, albeit without his job.
Years later, Taggart still beardless and clean and sober, is working as a low-rent private detective alongside his brash Girl Friday, Katy (Alona Tal of Veronica Mars). The two work tirelessly to collect money from their clients, though they are still at a major deficit. Luckily, Mayor Hostetler, who is up for re-election against Democrat-seeming Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper), comes a-calling, and asks Taggart to see whether or not his wife Cathleen (Zeta-Jones) is having an affair…and promises Taggart a sum of $50,000 to get pictures. Taggart does as he is told and photographs Cathleen at a home in Montauk with the Valliant’s campaign manager, Paul Andrews (Kyle Chandler). Though in getting the pictures, Taggart gets a lot more than he bargained for, since Hostetler wanted his wife followed for a “greater” purpose…
What comes next are a series of twists, turns, and political backstabbing that are easily figured out. Per the film’s trailer, Hostetler “owns” Taggart, and we discover why toward the end!
So many things are wrong here. For one, Wahlberg’s Taggart is not exactly a nice person and you never once root for him to succeed. He is violent and even starts drinking again…and faces little consequences other than getting into a fight. He also perpetuates a strange homophobic undercurrent that runs throughout the movie. He perhaps behaves the most offensively as his actress girlfriend Natalie (Natalie Martinez), who grew up in Bolton Village (remember that!), is about to star in her first indie film. Taggart is not supportive of her at all, and initially refuses to join her at the celebratory dinner because actors are too “metrosexual” and he is afraid that he will have to use makeup on his face as they do. The homophobia does leak out to other parts of the film, as Katy calls someone a “crossdresser!” on the phone and Hostetler goes all the way and says “faggot” a few times. Without giving any spoilers, there are two closeted gay characters, and they are not exactly depicted in the best light.
Contrary to the film’s trailer, Crowe isn’t really in the movie all that much, though he does the best he can with crappy material and hams it up on every scene. No one is explicitly assigned to a political party, but it is fairly easy to discern who is the Republican and who is the Democrat. Besides the fact that Crowe’s Hostetler favors the rich and his partnered with a billionaire Sam Lancaster (Griffin Dunne) in a real estate company (remember that!), he is made to resemble NYC Republican Donald Trump with the baked skin and swirly hairdo. Hostetler smiles, comes out with nonsensical catchphrases, and is beloved by the media, it seems. Crowe is having fun and it shows, and his scenes are little bright spots in an otherwise gloomy and murkily-plotted film. The delightful James Ransone also does a fine job in two scenes as Lancaster’s son.
While his character is pretty awful, Wahlberg does an okay job here, though nothing outstanding. Wahlberg does need a strong director to guide him toward delivering a great performance – David O. Russell or Paul Thomas Anderson are obvious ones – and he was really effective in a comedic lead in his summer’s Ted. Though Wahlberg does fall flat here, bogged down by a lackluster script from newcomer Brian Tucker and Hughes’ weak direction.
And, when it comes to Hughes, this film seems like it could have been directed by anyone. Which, let’s face it, this is a January release and a popcorn movie, so expectations aren’t too high. But there is not one scene that can be singled out here as being exemplary or looking remotely artistic. It is easy to see that Hughes was going for a Sidney Lumet-esque “dirty NYC of the ’70s” sort of feel here, given the themes of political unrest and the economic binary between rich and poor. Though the resulting effect is a depressingly themed movie, photographed with dark, unpleasant cinematography. NYC is a far greater city than this movie portrays.
The Upside: Russell Crowe seemed to be having a good time, at least.
The Downside: The murky plot, the unlikeable protagonist, the uncalled for homophobic undercurrent, the lack of any sort of directorial stamp…the list goes on.
On the Side: The film-within-a-film indie movie that Natalie stars in is the bi-product of someone who has never seen an indie movie, featuring a beach scene and a near-pornographic kitchen sex scene. Also, according to this film, struggling actors like to wear fedoras, which in this case includes Justin Chambers from Grey’s Anatomy.