The movies love sleaze in high places. From the posh offices of world leaders to the local political scandal, film enjoys tales of absolute power corrupting absolutely-and those who would bring such despots down. So it’s no surprise when an effort like Broken City comes around. It has all the components for a competent thriller. In this case, however, whatever appeal this material might have is diminished by a narrative that can’t quite get all the pieces to gel, or make sense.
During the mayoral elections in New York City, incumbent candidate Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe) asks former cop turned private detective Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) to follow his wife. Seven years earlier, Hizzoner helped cover up a crime committed by the then member of NYPD’s finest, and he wants a return of the favor. Sensing she is having an affair, Taggart trails Mrs. Hostetler (Catherine Zeta-Jones) to the bed of rival campaign manager Paul Andrews (Kyle Chandler) .
When he is eventually found dead, all leads point to our PI. Of course, Taggart has found out that Hostetler is beyond corrupt, using dirty tricks and other more lethal tactics to keep down the competition while profiting from his public position. With the help of his former friend Captain Carl Fairbanks (Jeffrey Wright), he hopes to expose the corruption in city hall, even if it costs him his freedom.
Maybe it’s the absence of his brother Albert. Perhaps it’s nothing more than a high profile cast slumming. Arguably, the script by first timer Brian Tucker could be more complex and less reliant on contrivance and coincidence. Whatever it is, Allen Hughes’ solo effort, Broken City, is a broken movie. It just doesn’t work, no matter how hard it, or its actors, try. There is a lot of A-list talent on display here, with Oscar winners Crowe and Zeta-Jones matching nominee Wahlberg note for attempted crime story note.
But the screenplay, filled with hackneyed implausibilities and trite characterization, constantly lets everyone down. We never fully understand Taggart’s original issue. Yes, what he did was illegal, but he was a police detective. Surely Tucker could have found a more effective manner to scribble his way out of that one. Worse yet is his view of the Mayor’s office. Crowe’s Hostetler seems to spend all his time glad-handing and plotting, not actually running the city. Oddly enough, no one notices nor are they concerned.
Still, all of this nonsense would succeed if we were given a reason to care. Wahlberg, for all his working class bravado, can’t quite shake his stoic superstar persona. He doesn’t play a character so much as a rendering of one and we never sympathize with his ex-peace officer. Crowe, on the other hand, fails in the villain department. We should pray for Hostetler to be taken down. Instead, we just want him off the screen. Luckily, many of the supporting players — Wright, Chandler, Barry Pepper — provide a modicum of intrigue. We are more interested in their story than what is actually happening to our leads.
As it goes through the motions, as revelations lead to little of major entertainment consequence, Broken City slowly dissipates into nothingness. Instead of going out with a bang, it just wanders away, whimpering.