Appellate Judge Tom Becker is no broke, so don't try to fix him.
Proof can be a powerful weapon.
Broken City seems like such an old movie. Its male characters speak in old-movie tough guy-ese; its female characters are largely undeveloped, existing mainly as props. Although it deals with corruption and scandal in a movie-version of New York City, it completely sidesteps anything remotely resembling how a scandal in New York City would play out: no headlines, no paparazzi, no advanced technology of any kind; in fact, a key moment involves a VHS tape! It really seems like first-time screenwriter Brian Tucker found a script from the '40s, tossed in some profanity and a couple of cell phones, and passed it off with the hope that no one watching it ever heard of Spencer Tracy, James Cagney, or any of the other "golden age" leading men who might have assayed this back in the day.
Police Officer Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg, Ted) shoots a man in a housing project courtyard. It's a questionable shooting made more complicated by the fact that the victim had recently walked away from a rape and murder charge on a technicality.
Mayor Nick Hostetler (Russell Crowe, Gladiator) applauds the shooting and considers it justice. When a piece of evidence surfaces that could spell trouble for Taggart, the Mayor has it suppressed. Taggart walks, but he's kicked off the force.
Seven years later, Taggart is a private investigator, mainly doing domestic dispute work—finding and photographing people who are cheating on their spouses. Out of the blue, he gets a call from the Mayor. The Mayor wants Taggart to follow his wife, Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chicago). Hostetler believes Cathleen is having an affair and wants Taggart to provide photos. As it happens, the Mayor is also up for re-election and embroiled in a tight race with Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper, Battlefield Earth), a reformer whose message is that Hostetler is corrupt and is selling the city to Wall Street. Underscoring Valliant's campaign: the recent multi-billion sale to private investors of the very same housing project where Taggart's shooting took place years before.
Now, at this point, you don't exactly have to be a genius to figure out where this is going.
• We've already ascertained that the Mayor is not above a little rule breaking for what he considers the common good.
• Even if we hadn't ascertained that, Crowe's performance, featuring more ham than a Brooklyn deli, would pretty much give it away.
• Since we're looking at the obvious here, we're going to figure that a character named "Valliant" is probably the good guy.
• Things being as they are, it's probably not much of a stretch to assume that Mrs. Hostetler's "dalliance" isn't all it seems, either.
• And it's a pretty safe bet that the sale of the public housing project is going to be an awfully big deal, with bad secrets abounding.
To say Broken City breaks no new ground is an understatement. As far as mysteries go, it's actually pretty lazy. A lot of time is spent with Taggart following "clues" that have been tossed to him and that lead pretty much where you'd expect; even more time is spent—uselessly—on Taggart's relationship problems and some comic relief with his assistant, Katy (Alona Tal, doing an odd, Thelma Ritter-as-ingénue turn). Taggart's relationship problems entail yet another not-so-compelling secret involving his girlfriend, an actress who's just made her debut in an independent film.
So, we have this lame and rambling mystery with a "name" cast. What makes it lamer still is also the thing that makes it fascinating in a drinking-game sort of way: the above-mentioned complete and utter disregard for anything that suggests this is 21st century New York City.
Taggart's such an old-school private eye, you half expect him to be wearing a porkpie hat and driving a Packard with a New Deal sticker on it. He climbs on garbage cans to peek through windows and follows a couple around a park with a big camera with a telephoto lens; I'm pretty certain that these days, in NYC, he wouldn't go unnoticed.
But then, so much goes unnoticed here. The film repeatedly namechecks the three big New York newspapers—Times, Daily News, and Post—and yet, for the all the obvious skullduggery, not one paper reports on anything being even slightly amiss. Even the wonky sale of public property to a private developer, with whom the Mayor is in bed, fails to garner so much as an editorial. Very public people have very personal secrets that would be rife for the rumor mills, but everything that's revealed comes off as a shock. Any other city at any other time, maybe, but New York in 2013? Um, no…
There's no danger of secrets being exposed on the Internet, because in Broken City, no one uses the Internet. Taggart doesn't use it for his sleuthing, the candidates don't use it to wage war…it's like Al Gore never invented it. The tough-talking Mayor routinely rattles off racial, ethnic, and sexual pejoratives, but no one ever records him on a cell phone. That the Mayor of New York would be unhappily married to a bombshell like Catherine Zeta-Jones would certainly be the subject of gossip columns—you know, the New York Post, which the Mayor reads, runs items like this on Page Six—but here, their charade goes undetected. Mrs. Mayor even has a speech about how unhappy she is being married to Mr. Mayor, but he refuses to give her a divorce—because it makes perfect sense that in 21st century New York, someone like Catherine Zeta-Jones is going to find herself trapped in a loveless marriage with absolutely no way out.
This sort of anachronistic nonsense abounds in Broken City. Clearly, Tucker couldn't figure out a way to tell his story with all the modern technological stumbling blocks, so he just pretends they don't exist. If the story were more intriguing, the heavy suspension of disbelief might be worth it, but the mysteries are so lifeless and hackneyed, that it all barely seems worth it.
Taggart is written as sort of a glum lunk, which gives Wahlberg the opportunity to channel his inner glum lunk. Wahlberg can be such an ingratiating presence, but this is really a thankless role. He sulks, he pouts, he sneers, and at one point, while going through a metal detector at City Hall, jokes that he's smuggling explosives—what is he, a tourist from Scotland? Even the most obnoxious native New Yorker—a hard-won title, by the way—knows better. In another eye-rolling sequence, a significant character is in shock after suffering a huge loss. The character still has to answer some questions for a duplicitous cop, however, so the cop enlists Wahlberg's Taggart to help convince the aggrieved person. How does Taggart gently coax information from this damaged soul? He waterboards the guy. For real.
Don't even get me started on Broken City's Saturday Night Live-esque take on what independent filmmakers are like. This film was directed by Allen Hughes, who with his brother, Albert, made Menace II Society, American Pimp, and Dead Presidents; you'd think at some point he might have encountered some indie filmmakers and that he'd know that the depiction he offers here is laughable.
Like so much of Broken City, it's just extraneous.
The disc is your basic, good-looking recent movie premiering on Blu-ray. There's nothing exceptional about the image, but then, there's nothing about the cinematography. Like the film, it's all very workmanlike. For supplements, we get a fairly comprehensive "making of," along with some deleted scenes and a trailer, plus a DVD and a digital download.
Broken City isn't a terrible movie, just an inconsequential one. Its silliness distinguishes it a bit from other low-impact thrillers, but not necessarily in a good way. Worth a rental if you're in a non-demanding mood.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Review content copyright © 2013 Tom Becker; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.