(by Dustin Putman
For just about all of its 109 minutes, it is readily apparent a whole lot of things have gone wrong with "Broken City," and they started long before a frame of footage was shot. A twisty political crime thriller with transparent aspirations of matching the likes of any number of 1970s "Chinatown"-esque classics, the troubles begin with a deluge of tired ideas, each one more cliched than the last, carry over to Brian Tucker's detached, overstuffed screenplay, and then commit the biggest no-no of all by going into production with none of its countless problems worked out. The director is Allen Hughes (2010's "The Book of Eli"), flying solo from his usual collaborator, brother Albert, and the cast is a who's-who of A-listers and upper-echelon character actors who must have signed on by fooling themselves into thinking it would all come together magically in the end. It doesn't—not at all—the finished outcome every bit as unfocused and mismanaged as anyone who read the script must have feared. It is awfully difficult to get involved in a film that isn't convincing for a second. Article continues below
Seven years ago, NYPD officer Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) narrowly escaped criminal punishment over a shooting gone wrong, but in the process lost his high-profile job. Now working as a binoculars-carrying private eye barely scraping by, Billy is approached by New York mayor Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe) with a $50,000 assignment he can't refuse: spy on his wife, Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and find out who she's having an affair with. Though Billy's sleuthing doesn't lead him directly to anything incriminating, he does spot her corresponding in private with Paul Andrews (Kyle Chandler), campaign manager to Hostetler's opponent in the upcoming election, Councilman Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper). From there, everything begins to unravel. Billy is hunted down and left for dead in a car crash. He loses his actress girlfriend, Natalie Barrow (Natalie Martinez), and starts drinking again. Someone close to the election turns up dead. And Valliant prepares to expose Hostetler's shady $4-billion land development deal. Oh, and has it been mentioned that Natalie's parents happen to be two of the long-term residents of Bolton Village who are apt to lose their home sooner rather than later?
There are numerous avenues that "Broken City" could go down deriving from any one of the story points in the above synopsis. Stirred all together, however, and they pass by intricate and into silly, far-fetched territory. They are at once undercooked and overwrought, with Billy spending the better part of the picture running around trying to get answers from people who pop up, spit out a bunch of rudimentary exposition, and then slip back into the shadows until they're needed again. Save for perhaps troubled protagonist Billy, who is so daft that he verbally questions whether or not people speak in complete sentences anymore, no one on view appears to have a life beyond what can be seen within the frame of the camera lens. Mayor Hostetler and wife Cathleen? Their interaction doesn't last much longer than the time it takes for him to suggestively place his hand around her neck, undoubtedly debating whether or not to squeeze. Otherwise, there is no history or detectable connection between the actors or the characters. This same drawback extends to all the spare participants, from Councilman Valliant, whose name is so on-the-nose as to be laughable, to county commissioner Carl Fairbanks (Jeffrey Wright), to Billy's girlfriend Natalie, whose journey-to-nowhere subplot feels like it belongs in an entirely separate movie. Speaking of movies, it is a riot that Natalie is established as shooting her "very first indie film" when we first meet her, only for said film to apparently complete post-production, find a distributor, and throw a lavish premiere in the span of about a week. Now that's some impressively fast moving and shaking!
Mark Wahlberg (2012's "Ted") is passable, but going through the motions as Billy Taggart, his only differentiation from the typical tailor-made Wahlberg persona being that he's even less likable than usual. When Billy gets jealous of Natalie's explicit film role, he becomes convinced she really slept with her onscreen partner. "Tell me the truth or I'm gonna start breaking shit!" he childishly screams. Moments later, he goes outside and, no kidding, beats up a poor hobo passing by. Take a moment and let that sink in. As Mayor Hostetler, Russell Crowe (2012's "Les Miserables") is all cool, calm, collected, and intense, all the better to suggest that he's up to no good. Thinking back on the picture, though, it's rather amazing how very little Crowe is given to do. He mostly stays out of the central goings-on. Used even less than that is Catherine Zeta-Jones (2012's "Playing for Keeps"), whose Cathleen is criminally left unexplored. She has one moment worth remembering—she calls Billy "a cut-rate dick," and probably isn't referring to his investigative profession—but, all in all, it couldn't have taken more than four or five days to shoot all her scenes. Of everyone in the cast, it is a virtual unknown who escapes unscathed. Playing Billy's dedicated, sharp-tongued assistant Katy, Alona Tal (2008's "College") is like a diamond in a junkyard, brightening up her screen time when everyone around her is just grumpy and morose.
As a studio production with a budget far heftier than such a thankless project deserves, naturally the aesthetics are pleasingly sleek. The music score, most notably in the final scene and extending through the end credits, is moody, catchy bliss. Indeed, it's no surprise that composer Atticus Ross (2011's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo") was involved. The cinematography by Ben Seresin (2010's "Unstoppable") is also unworthy of the moldy, cobbled-together plotting, turning Manhattan into a rich setting of autumnal flair. Alas, bright tech specs can only carry a film so far that is as oddly disconnected and ineffectual as this one. With no one to latch onto and every double-cross and nefarious secret more obvious yet contrived and anticlimactic than the next, "Broken City" at least stays true to its title: this is one crooked metropolis beyond repair.