I’m told that the spec script for “Broken City” languished in development hell for three years before Allen Hughes, one half of the Hughes Brothers, was brought on board as director and actually got it shot. If the finished film is of any indication, perhaps the script should have continued to languish. It has been called unoriginal and formulaic, and it is indeed both those things, although that’s not what bothered me about it; apart from the plot being surprisingly convoluted, the characters are not merely walking clichés but are also so poorly developed that they don’t register as anything resembling human beings. I suspect that some of the actors truly had no idea what to do with their roles and were thus forced to just wing it and hope for the best. That would mean Hughes was equally as in the dark; if he had a full grasp of the characters, he might have been able to direct his actors better.
It stars Mark Wahlberg, who has proven himself a natural fit for gritty crime dramas like this. Although his performance is about as competent as it can be, he nevertheless seems adrift in the material, and he’s never afforded the opportunity to do more than what it allows for. Whether it’s because of the screenplay, the direction, the editing, or some combination of the three, sometimes his character is completely out of touch with reality. Consider the fact that he’s an alcoholic. Exactly what kind of an alcoholic is he? The kind that can be confrontationally drunk one hour and sober enough to be back on the case the next. He’s also the kind that can regain the necessary self control for occasional social drinking. I’m not an alcoholic, but I understand enough about it to know that this is not the way it works. You’re either on the wagon, or you’re not.
Wahlberg plays Billy Taggart, who was once a respected NYPD officer before a controversial shooting and the subsequent legal and media frenzy disgraced him. The details of the shooting are left somewhat obscure, although we know it had something to do with his girlfriend, Natalie (Natalie Martinez), the two having grown up together in the same rough neighborhood. Regardless, all charges against Taggart were dismissed due to the political influence of Mayor Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe), a man that oozes corruption, malice, and hidden agendas from every pore. There’s nothing subtle about his dialogue, his body language, or his behaviors. Even his New York accent – which isn’t exaggerated to the point of parody, but comes pretty damn close – reeks of villainy. It might have been just as well to introduce this character with a sign around his neck saying “antagonist.”
Several years pass. Taggart is now a third-tier private investigator, his office cramped and cluttered with papers, his clients unable or unwilling to pay him for his services. He’s called upon by Hostetler, who’s now in the thick of his reelection campaign. Taggart’s job would appear to be very simple; he must follow Hostetler’s wife, Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and obtain proof that she’s having an affair. As an extra incentive, Hostetler offers to pay Taggart $50,000, which would more than adequately pay off outstanding debts. During the first days of the investigation, Taggart thinks he has struck gold when he sees Cathleen in the presence of Paul Andrews (Kyle Chandler), the campaign manager for Hostetler’s opponent, a liberal man of the people named Jack Valiant (Barry Pepper). Taggart delivers the incriminating photographs, believing that his job is done.
But all isn’t as it seems. I will obviously not divulge the film’s plot secrets. I will say that the film hinges on two twists, one revealed before the halfway point, the other reserved for the final act. Although neither one is particularly good, I will give the first one credit for being genuinely surprising. The second one, on the other hand, is one of several that movies like this rely upon, which is to say that it has long since lost the ability to be effective. The lack of originality wouldn’t have mattered had the filmmakers worked harder at making the movie entertaining; a well-made retread is always preferable to an awful first try. As it is, the final act is so tiresomely by-the-numbers that it’s more likely to inspire yawns than cheers and applause. It doesn’t help that the final scene is barely a narrative climax and almost nonexistent as an emotional resolution.
If you look at the way Crowe and Jones play off of each other, you’d swear they researched their roles by watching soap operas. Every line they deliver to each other drips with venomous theatricality; in a more refined movie, that could work, but in the case of “Broken City,” it comes off as forced and mechanical. As for the Martinez character, a burgeoning actress, she contributes absolutely nothing to the story and exits when it’s most convenient for her to do so. Her only apparent purpose is to be in the presence of annoying actor stereotypes, one of whom Taggart gets into a drunken fistfight with over an onscreen sex scene. The truly significant woman in Taggart’s life is his office assistant, Katy (Alona Tal). Her relationship with Taggart isn’t romantic, but that isn’t the point – because they share significant screen time together, it stands to reason that the Natalie character could have been altogether eliminated. Sometimes, you really have to wonder who structures these movies and what makes them think they know what they’re doing.