There is a really good story at the heart of Broken City: a political thriller of power, corruption and lies. Unfortunately, screenwriter Brian Tucker has decided to wrap it in a tawdry, clichéed neo-noir. The result is clumsy and awkward, and beyond even the power of its phenomenally talented cast to save.
Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) used to be a detective with the NYPD before a scandal forced his resignation. He now pays the bills as a private eye, or he would if he could get any of his clients of pay up. His standard-issue firecracker receptionist, Katy (Alona Tal), seems to be a few grains shy of a bang when it comes to collections. But his salvation arrives in the form of a very big client indeed.
Incumbent New York City mayor Nick Hostetler (Russell Crowe) is locked in a reelection battle with idealistic upstart Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper). Making matters worse, his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is having an affair. As he tells Billy, the people of New York have elected a boatload of racial, ethnic, and social slurs to the mayor’s office, but never a known cuckold. Billy must find the interloper so Hostetler can deal with this quietly before the following Tuesday’s election.
When the investigation turns up Paul (Kyle Chandler), Valliant’s campaign manager, Billy somehow doesn’t suspect that larger forces may be at work. No, that takes Paul turning up dead. Only then does Billy dig in and start to uncover what’s really going on, which turns out to be a revelation only to those who came in halfway through the movie.
This much could be cleaned and tightened and molded into a pretty good story. But then there’s a pointless running thing about Katy’s incarcerated brother calling the office collect. Worse, Billy’s girlfriend, Natalie (Natalie Martinez) serves little essential purpose beyond adding more pathos to an already pathetic character. Her “indie movie” feels more like some sort of weird cross-genre potshot than anything else.
The cast is strong, and they try their best. Billy is right in Wahlberg’s wheelhouse, so he’s as good here as in the dozen other times he’s played basically the same character. Crowe and Zeta-Jones each play their assigned part to the hilt — Hostetler is unctuous and subtly menacing, while his wife clearly lives in fear of him — but that’s just not enough when the characters themselves don’t feel motivated by anything other than genre conventions.
And speaking of conventions, when was it decided that noir characters should all be as unlikable as possible? It’s not enough that the mayor be power-hungry and unethically questionable, he has to be a bigot, too? The private eye can’t just be tormented, he has to be a jerk about it? There’s nobody here to actually like, either as a hero or an antihero. The movie wants so badly to be The Departed, but it has no idea what made that film work.
And, truth be told, I sort of wanted it to be The Departed, too, and it could have been something close. The biggest disappointment is the wasted potential.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.