Broken City (United States, 2013)

January 17, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Broken City Poster

Broken City? More appropriately, Broken Movie.

There's an old multiplex proverb that goes something like this: "Beware ye movies opening in January that star A-list actors." Broken City illustrates the wisdom of those words. This mess of a motion picture was accorded a mid-January release date because it was too high profile to jettison directly to home video. So the producers elected to go the landfill route: dump it into the cinematic trash heap that represents the post-Oscar bait landscape and then move it quietly to DVD a few months later. Along the way, a quote whore might even be impressed enough to give up a line or two for the jacket.

Broken City's problems are representative of overly ambitious stories that get stripped down and eviscerated in order to satisfy time constraints. Add an hour to the film's running time and it might offer a richer, more involving narrative. As it is, it's borderline-incoherent with subplots ending abruptly, characters changing their allegiances with little motivation, coincidence and contrivance fueling major plot developments, and whole scenes seemingly missing. It's maddeningly frustrating because, underneath all the sloppiness, there's a potentially compelling tale of government corruption but, at least in the final production, we only catch glimpses of it, like the moon occasionally peeking through on a mostly cloudy night.

The movie opens with a prologue set seven years earlier than the bulk of the movie. In it, we see police detective Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) in a courtroom defending himself against charges that he murdered a perpetrator. NYC Mayor Hostetler (Russell Crowe) considers him a hero, but the police chief, Carl Fairbanks (Jeffrey Wright), isn't so sure. Billy is exonerated but, because damaging evidence has been covered up, he must resign from the force to keep people from digging. He reluctantly agrees. Seven years later, we catch up with him working as a P.I. His relationship with his live-in girlfriend, Natalie (Natalie Martinez) has grown stale but he's not moving in on his feisty assistant, Katy (Alona Tal), even though she obviously has a thing for him.

One day, Hostetler calls Billy to a meeting. He needs someone to track his wife, Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones), whom he suspects of infidelity. He wants pictures and the identity of Cathleen's lover. Currently in the middle of a tight mayoral race with challenger Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper), Hostetler can't afford for this story reaching the papers, so he offers the princely sum of $50,000 if Billy can get him what he wants. It goes without saying, however, that all is not as it seems and Billy is being manipulated like a pawn in a chess game.

In the right role, Mark Wahlberg can be a tremendous asset to any movie. Unfortunately, Billy is not the right role. Wahlberg is stiff and unconvincing and it quickly becomes apparent that the film would have benefitted from someone with a more volcanic temperament in the lead. As his adversary, Russell Crowe brings a little more to the part, but this isn't the New Zealand-born actor's finest hour. Catherine Zeta-Jones, continuing her comeback from obscurity, takes another step toward re-entering the consciousness of an industry with a ridiculously short memory. The two actors who make the biggest impressions are Jeffrey Wright, playing a top cop with conflicting interests and allegiances, and Alona Tal as Billy's assistant.

Taken at face value, the central conceit of Broken City is so preposterous that it makes The Hobbit seem realistic by comparison. With plot holes wider than the Lincoln Tunnel, the movie becomes impossible to take seriously. There's also an issue with unfulfilled expectations. Throughout the film, we're led to believe there will be some big "reveal" - a twist or secret that will cause us to gasp in shock. When it comes, it's so muted and unsurprising that it diminishes the film's climax. Hostetler, who initially seems to be a canny, powerful spider at the center of a complex web, turns out to be a common crook with few tools at his disposal. His personal army seems to consist of Billy and another ex-cop. Even the mayor of Small Town, USA has a few more stooges.

Broken City tries to use Billy's personal life as a means to beef up his underwritten character but the approach fails. The scene in which he falls off the wagon is so overplayed that it works better as comedy than drama. His romantic relationship with Natalie, which boasts an intriguing backstory, disintegrates with a suddenness that isn't credible and the film's unwillingness to "go there" with a Billy/Katy hookup ignores the evident chemistry between Wahlberg and Tal.

It's likely that what attracted director Allen Hughes (one half of The Hughes Brothers, the sibling team that made their debut with Menace II Society) to the project is the concept that politicians will sell out some of their most vulnerable constituents for personal gain and the chance to make political points. The problem isn't only that this has become stale through overuse (how many movies have we seen over the years with corrupt politicians or government officials) but that, in this case, the telling is sloppy and mangled. Whether the core flaw lies in the script or is the result of overly aggressive editing, the final result is offers only sporadic glimpses of the compelling thriller Broken City fails to evolve into.

Broken City (United States, 2013)

Run Time: 1:49
U.S. Release Date: 2013-01-18
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity,Sexual Content, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1