Broken City — Review

2 of 5 stars
Broken City

Broken City’s thinly sketched, formulaic script offers meager rewards for all but the least demanding noir aficionados.—RT

Have you ever wanted to watch a modern detective story set in New York starring some great actors? So have I, but Broken City isn’t that film we dream of. I went into the movie theater hopeful, and came away yawning, and asking myself, “Why? What were they thinking?”

Broken City is based on a spec script and is the directorial debut for Allen Hughes by an untested production company.1 With that in mind, it’s no wonder that Broken City doesn’t meet the mark.

Why is it that Hollywood can’t give us a great detective, like Sam Spade or Sherlock Holmes, for the 21st century?

Scandalous Civil Servants at Work

New York City police officer Billy Taggart (played by Mark Wahlberg) is involved in a controversial shooting, but he is kept out of jail by Mayor Hostetler (played by Russell Crowe) and Carl Fairbanks (played by Jeffrey Wright). Taggart reforms himself into a private investigator, though he struggles to make money and keep his private firm afloat with the help of his Girl Friday, Katy Bradshaw (played by Alona Tal).

Mr. Mayor Hostetler offers Taggart the big bucks to investigate his wife Cathleen Hostetler (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones) to determine if she is having an affair. As a result of the investigation, Taggart learns there is more to the mayor than meets the eye. It would appear Mrs. Mayor is two-timing with the campaign manager of her husband’s mayoral opponent.

What unfolds is a creepy conspiracy to destroy NY’s projects in favor of real estate development that will line the Mayor’s pockets with $100 bills. And if Det. Taggart is to do anything about the corrupt mayor, it may cost him his life, as it has others.

A New All-American Detective Movie Franchise?

Mark Wahlberg’s acting excels at most any genre he finds himself in. I’ve liked his dramatic, comedic, and thriller roles, whether he was the side character or the star of the show. In particular, I was convinced Mark was more than your average action/thriller star in his performance for Shooter. Mark, you keep it up.

And I like watching Mark as the detective Billy Taggart too. Walhberg/Taggart feels like a throw-back, in subtle ways, to the performances of Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade. You want to root for this flawed human being, whether he is in the moral right or not. What you hope to see is his eventual maturity rise up. I would be interested to see a sequel to Broken City furthering the life and storyline of Billy Taggart.

Related to the character of Billy is his Girl Friday, Katy Bradshaw, played by Alona Tal. Alona did a swell job, carrying the fine line between the executive assistant wanting to maintain a professional relationship with her boss, Billy, and falling in love with Billy because he’s noble and looks out for her. What would’ve been an otherwise thankless role in most dramas here is one of the stars in my final rating of Broken City: the character/relationship/dynamic that Alona brings to Katy Bradshaw.

Something else I enjoyed at times were the one-liners. There is more than one catchy witticism spouted off at a poignant moment. Some of these were gritty twisted statements that are too offensive for repeating here, but they worked in the context of the narrative, selling the rifts between the bad guys and good guys all the same. Jeffrey Wright as Police Commissioner Carl Fairbanks had the best lines in the whole movie, somewhat surprisingly.

On another note, it’s not every day that a movie depicts New York City very well, but Broken City does. There are many scenes showing the good, the bad, and the ugly of the metropolis, and I liked the variety of locations. To flesh out this detective story, the city’s portrayal went a long way to make a realistic environment. Kudos to the filmmakers picking the right locations for the right setting.

Dumpster Diving in a Dark Alley

Ultimately, there is more wrong than right with Broken City. It’s a film that appears to be better than the sum of its parts, but if you study the parts individually you will notice significant flaws.

Russell Crowe wasn’t believable as the mayor of NY. Come on. His heavy-handed acting as an extremely villainous villain is in no way believable. He could’ve pulled it off if he didn’t over-sell and over-perform every line, but that’s what he did. As Mayor Hostetler, he is by no means believable for his day job: making the city of NY a better place.

Mrs. Hostetler was no better. In all honesty, Catherine’s acting is worse than Russel’s in an integral role of the film. Catherine “don’t-show-my-cosmetic-surgery-alterations-too-closely” Zeta-Jones is annoying in this and most of her other recent performances. She’s deadpan and distant, though it does nothing to help the story. She’s acting as though she is evading her job as an actress on screen. Less Botox, more personality, Catherine.

And general plot annoyances went through the roof. While the story is thick with details, it’s loserly weak in interesting ones. More often then not the plot of the evildoers to commit wicked deeds was spread too thin, and the good guys spent way too much of the film in the dark with the audience as to what the evil deeds were to begin with. As painful as it may be to follow my criticisms is how difficult it was to follow the plot.

This brings up another weak plot point in Billy’s love interest with the actress, Natalie Barrow. Most of the love relationship was too complicated to portray a believable couple passionately wrestling for the survival of their relationship. I didn’t see merit in the relationship at all — well, apart from the obvious physical attraction these two misfits had for each other.

The cause for the weak plot is obviously the weak screenplay. At times it is kinda original, so I can see why the film made it all the way to the big screen. But it has noticeable contrivances: cliches hearkening back to noir detective films. Det. Sam Spade + Det. James ‘Jimmy’ McNulty = Billy Taggart. It’s more than a little awkward.

The Bottom Line

Considering this is director Allen Hughes’ debut as the solo head of any film, it’s not half bad. I was entertained by the setup of the plot, and the characters of Billy Taggart and Katy Bradshaw. I think this could even be a fun new detective movie franchise if the producers committed themselves to improving Broken City’s broken screenplay.

Yes, Broken City is broken in and of itself.

There are many shortcomings in Broken City — everything from Russell Crowe’s orangish spray-on tan, to the cumbersome plot that’s difficult to follow, to the pathetic love story between Billy Taggart and Natalie Barrow. The film would’ve improved greatly with the help of a simpler plot, shorter list of well-specified characters, etc.

  1. Regency Pictures is in large part accredited for Broken City, but it’s the other studios, Regency Enterprises and Emmett/Furla Films, that demonstrate a quality of inexperience in the craft of the film.