One of the usual symptoms of being a seasoned movie addict is that you sometimes make a certain list in your mind before you appreciate genre films. The list consists of many genre conventions and clichés you may have heard about at least once, and I must confess that it is a little fun to cross lines on the items in the list – especially when I get disinterested with what is shown on the screen.
I could not help but check its nuts and bolts while watching “Broken City” rather than enjoying its convoluted plot of greed, ambition, and corruption, but that does not mean that it is a bad film. Although my mind kept checking the stereotypes and conventions it diligently provides from its promising beginning to its lackluster ending, the movie is not boring at least, and it works to some degrees thank to its good cast.
First, the movie presents your average flawed noir hero to move around the dark streets of New York. Seven years ago, NYPD detective Billy Taggert(Mark Wahlberg) got into the serious trouble when he shot the suspect of a rape case under the questionable circumstance. He was charged with a manslaughter, but his chief Carl Fairbanks(Jeffrey Wright) and Mayor Nick Hostetler(Russell Crowe) took care of the trouble, so his deed was ruled as a self-defence at the court in the end.
However, Taggert had to leave NYPD instead, so now he works as a private investigator whose specialty is catching the sights of adultery. He always does his jobs as requested, but, mainly because of his clients who have not paid him yet, the management in his office has been suffering from financial trouble despite the efforts of his no-nonsense assistant Katy(Alona Tal), who is always ready to support him just like any loyal assistants in other noir movies about private detectives.
And then, not so surprisingly, a lucrative offer comes to his office. Hostetler, who is still the incumbent mayor of the Big Apple and is also determined to stay in his office, privately requests Taggert to get the definite proof on his wife’s affair. While he and his wife have been estranged from each other in their private life, her affair can be a serious blow to his campaign because Hostetler is currently in the tight competition with a young councilman Jack Valliant(Barry Pepper) in the upcoming election, and he won’t take any chance with this possibility. In front of $ 25,000 check given to him in advance, Taggert cannot refuse Hostetler’s request, and he immediately begins to spy on Hostetler’s wife Cathleen(Catherine Zeta-Jones).
Of course, the things do not look as simple as they seem. Something eventually happens thanks to his investigation, and Taggart finds himself being dragged into the world of deception and corruption where almost everybody hides something behind his/her back. It seems there has been the relationship between Cathleen and Paul Andrews(Kyle Chandler), the campaign manager working for Valliant, and it may be connected with a recent big deal involving 4 billion dollars realized through Hostetler’s support. Fairbanks, who is now the Police Commissioner, is looking for any chance for his benefits while mostly staying neutral between two candidates, and he is ready to get any useful information from his former officer.
The movie sets up its pieces solidly on its plate, but how it handles them is disappointing in comparison. As it unfolds and twists its plot, Brian Tucker’s screenplay does not try that much to distinguish itself from its senior noir films about urban corruption, and it looks like a mere imitation compared to them. I was not so surprised by what was revealed along the progression of the plot because I could easily predict its every turn in advance, and I also found that the conflict at its center was resolved in a way too convenient.
The actors acquit themselves well, and they cover some of the holes in the screenplay through their adequate performances. Mark Wahlberg is suitably cast as a gray hero with the dark past he eventually comes to face again through his investigation, and Russell Crowe has several moments to act with gusto as a wily and bullying politician who never forgets what others did to him as well as what they did for him. Crowe’s best moment in the film comes when Hostetler participates in the debate with Valliant on TV; he smoothly and blatantly suppresses his competitor with no mercy in front of the camera, and Valliant knows he is losing to his rival even though he tries hard.
The supporting performers are mostly stuck in their functional paycheck roles, and it is a shame that most of them are not fully utilized in the movie. Catherine Zeta-Jones does not have many things to do except being aloof and bitter, and her scenes with Crowe suggest a lot about what could have been done with the frigid relationship between their characters. Jeffrey Wright is dependable and watchable as usual in his thankless role, and Barry Pepper is appropriate as a decent politician who realizes that he is a lot more vulnerable than he thought when something unexpected happens to him.
The director Allen Hughes did what he could do with the weak screenplay, and the result is a watchable but unsatisfying noir drama. There are lots of spots which could have been improved in the story, and the movie did not delve deep enough into Taggart’s relationship with his actress girlfriend Natalie(Natalie Martinez) although it later turned out to be closely related to his dark past. I must admit that I did not have a bad time with the movie, and I was amused even when checking my list, but, on the whole, I was not impressed enough.