I’m not sure if it’s far enough from a contentious election to find a story about a crooked politician in a heated election really palatable. Although, are we ever far enough from a contentious election? Nonetheless, Broken City attempts to merge a political thriller with a crime drama and in the end just produces a pretty scummy story without much entertainment value.
In Broken City, NYC mayor Nick Hostetler (Russell Crowe) hires private investigator Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) to get photographic evidence that his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is cheating on him and to find the identity of her lover. The mayor “owes” Billy a favor after an incident seven years earlier in which Billy killed a young man who was acquitted for the rape and murder of a teenage girl. Though the state had insufficient evidence to try Billy for murder, he also lost his job as a police officer. Crooked politician that he is, Hostetler considers Billy a hero. Meanwhile, Hostetler fights through the final days of a heated mayoral election against Jack Valiant (Barry Pepper), who, if elected, threatens to bring down a new housing deal the mayor just minted. As Billy tails Mrs. Hostetler, assisted by his receptionist, Kady (Alona Tal), he also finds his relationship with his girlfriend Natalie (Natalie Martinez) on the rocks.
The major problem with Broken City is the clunky script. The major conflict of the story, which initially seems to be adultery and murder, turns out to be caused by a real estate contract. The drama comes from the score and genre conventions rather than a well-structured or well-conceived story. The dialogue is often stilted, sometimes laughably so. My favorite line in the whole film occurs during a scene in which Billy and Kady try to get clients to pay their bills. One angry man quips, “You’ll get your money Nevuary.” Much of the movie is as nuanced and snappy. In a pivotal scene between Billy and Mrs. Hostetler, rather than conveying the intensity and suspense intended, the dialogue is flat and cliched.
The relationship between Kady and Billy is a minor part of the story, but the most genuinely entertaining. Wahlberg and Tal bring chemistry to the fun rapport between the two and the script doesn’t go to the easy place with their relationship, resisting making Kady a rebound from Billy’s problems with Natalie, the sister of the murdered girl from the begining. On the other hand, the relationship between Billy and Natalie provides a troubling and underdeveloped backdrop for the story between Billy and Hostetler. While it makes sense for the bad-guy mayor to endorse the murder of a murderer, the movie’s attempt to take an ambivalent stance on Billy’s actions, making him an unlikely or reluctant hero just doesn’t work. Instead, the story introduces questions about violence, power, race, and politics without really addressing them.
Given the problems of the script, it’s no surprise that the acting isn’t very good either. Russell Crowe’s performance is heavy-handed. He relies entirely on his terrible haircut and cheesy accent to capture the sleazy mayor. Admittedly, he’s pretty disgusting, but Crowe is so over-the-top it’s distracting. Catherine Zeta-Jones is kind of wonderful. She conveys Mrs. Hostetler’s attempts to undermine her husband with genuine spousal hatred in a way that at least makes some part of the story interesting. Mark Wahlberg does a fine job but his character is so totally underwritten that he just sort of drifts through the movie drinking whiskey and getting angry without much sense of purpose. In the end, even fine performances are underwhelming.
All told, Broken City is the kind of movie that has little real value. Everyone in the story is pretty terrible and the film falls flat. For its terrible writing and acting, I rate Broken City 2/5 stars.
Broken City was written by Brian Tucker and directed by Allen Hughes. It runs 109 minutes and is rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence.