Broken City (2013)

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Confused story, corrupt city

In Broken City Russell Crowe, confident as always if somewhat out of character, plays Mayor Hostetler (no first name), the tough, smug, old-boy head pol of a dark, shiny New York City. When does this all happen? Hard to say, really. It looks sort of like today, but it has a rougher air suggestive of the decades before Rudy Giuliani got tough and brought down the crime rate; and there are suggestions of Giuliani too. The mayor runs afoul of various things, perhaps chiefly his own greed, bad character and inflated ego, but also a clean-cut opponent in the upcoming election, helpfully named Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper); his elegant, but by now hostile, wife Cathleen (a beautiful and posh-looking Catherine Zeta-Jones); his seeming ally, Police Commissioner Carl Fairbanks (a lean, incisive Jeffrey Wright); and the reliably muscular and soulful Mark Wahlberg, playing a cop with a tarnished reputation but a hardon for just causes. Names tell you a lot here, and Wahlberg’s is cosy, Billy Taggart. Billy, the erstwhile protagonist of the piece, is a boy from the projects who became a cop, got in trouble for killing a wrongdoer who had gotten off in court, and has since spent seven years barely making ends meet as a private investigator. His speciality, as in the days of J.J. Gittes, is adultery, and the mayor hires him on the QT for $50,000 to spot who his wife Cathleen is messing around with before the election. A Gotham mayor can be a fairy or a black man or a crook, he all but says, but the citizens won’t stand for his having a two-timing wife. At this point, the plot is ready to boil. All these actors are good, and Hughes, flying solo for the first time away from his brother Albert (they worked together from Menace II Society in 1997 toThe Book of Eli in 2007), gives us a good-looking, swirling movie. The trouble lies with the screenplay by first-timer Brian Tucker.

Oh yes, and by the way Billy has a beautiful Latina actress wife, Natalie Barrow (she’s changed her name — don’t ask — played by the beautiful Latina Natalie Martinez), also originally from the projects. He gets pretty riled up by a scene in her first indie movie, goes off the wagon after the premiere, and goes rogue in the West Village, causing him to come upon a murder scene tied to his employer. Billy also has a cute, and sweet, and terribly loyal “administrative partner,” Katy Bradshaw (Alona Tal). That means she maintains the books and makes the phone calls, but also goes out on dangerous operations, when called upon by Billy, whom she clearly adores. All she gets is a hug. Natalie gets worse. Women don’t fare well here, and intimate relationships aren’t developed on screen.

Most of the action is a mixture of the confused adultery investigation, which turns out to have unforeseen and lastingly hazy ramifications, and the countdown to the mayoral election, with an embarrassingly written public debate and subsequent scenes of late-night violence both indoors and out.

All this winds up being the kind of melange you might have gotten if you went to a video store and picked up a random tape in the Eighties, a mixture of overwrought neo-noir, garbled political thriller and good-cop bad-cop tale, none of them fully developed or properly integrated. This ought to be the kind of gritty crime movie character role for Wahlberg that he has delivered well in the past, things like James Gray’s The Yards, Scorsese’s The Departed, the Italian Job remake, John Singleton’s Four Brothers, last year’s Contraband. As Billy Taggert, he gets in some tough scrapes and has some intense confrontations with Crowe, Zeta-Jones, and Wright. But he’s forced to play errand boy in this confused plot. Running around in a car and shooting somebody’s wife with a camera is not the job for him. The same could be said for Crowe. He can be a smiling villain of a corrupt politician, but much of the time he merely gets to pour drinks and pose in a nice suit and starched shirt with ha collar pin and an artificial tan strangely out of place in wintry Manhattan. Zeta-Jones walks around, circulates at posh receptions, gets in and out of limos. Jeffrey Writht, always the selfless, understated actor, gets more lines than he sometimes does here, but once again the role is quite unworthy of his formidable talents.

I mentioned J.J. Gittes, and in his screenplay Brian Tucker is wrestling with the kind of moral questions, big city corruption and low level vice delineated so brilliantly in Robert Towne’s classic script for Polanski’s Chinatown. But here the material is cliché-ridden and not thought through. There are few memorable lines, and fewer resonant scenes.

Broken City is out in the UK 1st March 2013.

DIRECTOR: ALLEN HUGHES
WRITER: BRIAN TUCKER
STARS: MARK WAHLBERG, RUSSELL CROSE, CATHERINE ZETA-JONES, BARRY PAPPER, JEFFREY WRIGHT, NATALIE MARTINEZ, ALONA TAL
RUNTIME: 109 MIN
COUNTRY: USA

Film Rating: ★★½☆☆

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