That “Broken City”’s portrayal of its conservative political candidate as a corrupt snake and its liberal candidate as a JFK-emulating idealist does not even come close to being its tiredest cliche should tell you something about the filmmakers’ capacity for original thought. It’s astounding that this predictable “thriller” about a crooked New York City mayor (Russell Crowe) made it to the big-screen instead of being relegated to a weekly 10 p.m. slot on CBS. Oh, how gratifying it would have been to change the channel on “Broken City.”
The cookie-cutter nature of the premise would have been forgivable had writer Brian Tucker and director Allen Hughes leveraged said premise into a few unique third-act twists and turns, but because they don’t, the film plays like the cinematic equivalent of moldy leftovers. Protagonist Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) is an N.Y.P.D. cop charged with murdering a young suspected killer, in what he claims was an act of self-defense. His case is dismissed before trial thanks to Mayor Hostetler, who pulls a few strings to make a key witness against Billy disappear. Why Hostetler does this is never really made clear; perhaps he seeks to avoid political scrutiny for poor management of his police force, but more likely, his saving Billy is just the filmmakers’ way of telling the audience that the mayor is so evil, he would shelter the alleged murderer of a black kid.
Despite being the alleged murderer in question, Billy is not evil like Hostetler, or so the film assures us by transforming him into a sympathetic, everyman protagonist when it flashes forward to his new life as a private investigator, seven years later. But once again, Billy is caught in a bind (this time, money trouble) that only Hostetler, still in office, can help get him out of. For $50,000, the mayor hires Billy to track his wife (Catherine Zeta Jones), who he claims is having an affair. Billy discovers that she’s been secretly meeting with Paul Andrews (Kyle Chandler), the campaign manager for Hostetler’s re-election opponent, do-gooder Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper).
It doesn’t take much experience viewing this genre to realize that Jack and Mrs. Hostetler are not conducting a romantic relationship, but something much more narratively significant regarding her husband, and that Mayor Hostetler will later use his intimate knowledge of Billy’s sordid past as a means of extortion. And as if we couldn’t predict the convention-fueled outcome ourselves, writer Tucker and director Hughes telegraph what’s going to happen well in advance — not just in terms of the main plot, but subplots like the truth behind Billy’s alleged crime.
How Tucker’s script for “Broken City” made the Black List, Hollywood’s annual compilation of the best unproduced screenplays, in 2008 is something of a mystery. Not only is the film predictably plotted, but the dialogue is often painfully mannered. One wonders if there were uncredited rewrites that corrupted Tucker’s vision, as one of the most cringe-inducing lines (paraphrased: “Your bill has been past due since Simon Cowell was a judge on ‘American Idol’!”) was obviously written post-‘08. Further, if the script was ever any good (questionable), it must have been extensively condensed for filming, given that characters’ motivations are scarcely illuminated. In addition to Hostetler’s opaque reasoning for exonerating Billy, the dealings between Mrs. Hostetler and Paul Andrews (which I won’t bother to detail here) are never logically justified.
The only redeeming facet of “Broken City” is Russell Crowe’s scenery-chewing performance as the malicious mayor. (Well, aside from a tangent involving an independent film starring Billy’s girlfriend that’s entertaining because it’s so tonally at odds with the rest of the movie.) Unlike the filmmakers and the vanilla Wahlberg, Crowe realizes that if you’re going to make a standard-schmandard “crooked cops, crooked politicians” movie, you’ve got to do it with some ferocity and verve. This is far from the dignified actor’s best work, but his seedy presence manages to engage where the material doesn’t. “Broken City” would have been a better movie had it consisted solely of a 100-minute, single-take monologue from Crowe.
But alas, Crowe is relegated to a supporting role and director Hughes simply takes the film through its pedestrian motions, failing to provide even a little aesthetic intrigue to make up for the narrative’s shortcomings. Why would you fork over $10 to see “Broken City” tonight when you can get the same thing for free by tuning into CBS?