Or, Broken Movie: Allen Hughes’ Broken City shows all the telltale signs of post-production tampering, which has resulted in a choppy film full of loose ends, characters who switch allegiance at a whim, a hard-to-decipher plot driven not by events or characters but by arbitrary contrivance, and mandatory twists and turns that are completely underwhelming.
And yet, despite everything that is so clearly wrong with Broken City, I enjoyed a lot of it. In some previous form, perhaps, this was a decent little B-movie detective story, a slick little nourish tale with an excellent cast and seedy New York City setting. It doesn’t work in its present state, but its heart is in the right place. That counts for something.
The film opens with a shooting and a trial: street cop Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) has slain an accused rapist and murderer in the (fictional) ghetto of Bolton Village. Taggart is acquitted of wrongful death, but loses his job in the process. This has nothing to do with the upcoming events of the film, so we know in going to factor in at a later time; the filmmakers’ only hope is that we forget about it till then.
Flash-forward seven years, and Taggart is working as a private investigator. He’s hired by the mayor, Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe), to follow his wife (Catharine Zeta-Jones) around and find out who she’s been seeing, in advance of an upcoming election. Uh-huh. We know where this is headed.
Plotwise, Broken City seems to have taken more than a few cues from Chinatown: the ex-cop P.I., the infidelity investigation, the revelation of a larger conspiracy involving shady real estate dealings, and so on. It’s vaguely offensive that the script (by debut scribe Brian Tucker) has the gall to crib so much from such a celebrated classic, but at least it’s stealing from the best.
One of the big problems here, however, is that the film never really seems invested in the detective work; Taggart goes here, goes there, talks to someone, finds a clue. It’s all rather monotonous. The conspiracy is never fully coherent, its gravity never fully conveyed. We’re never invested enough in the plot to really care about what’s going on.
To boot, the ultimate extent of the conspiracy, the payoff of all the twists and plot machinations, is hardly surprising. Corruption in politics? Shock, horror.
Our hero also suffers from underdevelopment, which includes not one, but two romantic subplots that are left unresolved (possibly on the cutting room floor): the culmination of relationships with girlfriend Natalie (Natalie Martinez) and assistant Katy (Alona Tal) are mostly left to our imagination. A drinking problem is laughably mishandled, and quickly forgotten. Wahlberg struggles to bring any life to this character.
The supporting cast, however, is excellent, starting with Crowe, who steals the film with his slimy New Yawk Mayor – he’s wonderful to watch in the few scenes where he really gets to strut around, including a climactic debate with rival Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper, also good). Jeffrey Wright, Kyle Chandler, James Ransone, and Griffin Dunne also make some good impressions in smaller, but key, roles.
The film was directed by Allen Hughes, half of the usually-solid directing duo behind Menace II Society and Dead Presidents (and most recently, The Book of Eli). The result is a haphazard mess, but one gets the feeling that studio interference deserves most of the blame. I did really appreciate the finale, which sticks to its (nicely understated) ideals rather than going for a typical Hollywood ending.
Broken City was unceremoniously dumped in January in the US, a release date usually reserved for the likes of A Haunted House or Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, not a film of this pedigree (see also: Gangster Squad). Clearly, the studio didn’t have a lot of faith in this project. As a stripped-down detective story, or an expanded-upon TV miniseries, Broken City might have been pretty good. In its current form, it’s a mess, but an enjoyable mess nonetheless.