There are exciting, engrossing thrillers, and there are godawful thrillers. Broken City, boasting a terrific cast including Russell Crowe, Mark Wahlberg, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, should fall into the first category, but instead winds up in the middle, wallowing in mediocrity due to its disappointingly weak script. Broken City is not a bad film, but it’s also far too meager and simplistic to measure up against the classic film noirs it attempts to emulate, like Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.
Director Allen Hughes treats the audience to some gorgeous images of the cityscape, focusing in on looming, opaque skyscrapers as if to expose the city’s darker, more sinister side. New York feels alive and dangerous, and the cinematography is often striking; one brutally fast car crash is so potent that it gave me whiplash. The director’s skill in transforming his setting into a secondary character suggests a major talent. Unfortunately, Broken City‘s undercooked script doesn’t give Hughes much to work with.
Protagonist Billy Taggart (Wahlberg) is an ex-cop working as a private eye after killing a homicidal rapist who got off on a technicality. Struggling to make ends meet, he sees an easy way out when Mayor Nicolas Hostetler (Crowe) offers him big bucks to look into his wife’s affair. But when Taggart starts to dig deeper, he finds himself in over his head and in the ruthless politician’s crosshairs.
Wahlberg, sporting a thick Boston accent, plays Taggart with a mix of streetwise wariness, moral indecision, and sullen anger. Crowe one-ups him as the charismatic, slimy Hostetler; he’s a simultaneously charming, menacing, and unsettlingly plausible villain, a ruthless Machiavellian fat cat who delights in playing puppet master. It’s an unconventional part for Crowe but one that he plays well, filling every line with dangerous verve. And Zeta-Jones brings a sense of class as the elegant and sultry First Lady, as cunning and cold-blooded as her husband. The supporting cast is also strong, especially Alona Tal as Taggart’s loyal assistant and Jeffrey Wright as an unscrupulous police commissioner.
As Wahlberg and Crowe face off, the movie comes to life with a powerful kick, upping the tension with every line. But outside of those few compelling snippets of dialogue (Crowe’s rousing, guileful speech during a mayoral debate comes to mind), there’s very little going on. It’s all style, no substance; ultimately, Broken City‘s plot is its weakest link. Like Crowe’s politics, despite all the posturing and presentation, what it all comes down to is unabashedly straightforward. With a cast as great as this, a more interesting, layered story would have elevated Broken City above standard genre fare. As it is, the movie is diverting without being particularly smart, thoughtful, or exciting. It’s a no-frills B-movie masquerading as something much more interesting. B-
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