If nothing else, Broken City manages to pull off a difficult feat: It’s too convoluted to follow and simultaneously too simplistic to be believed. Directed by Allen Hughes (Menace II Society, Dead Presidents, From Hell) and rather clumsily written by newcomer Brian Tucker, the movie is a thriller that turns clunkier the more procedural it grows, relying on coincidences and unlikely confessions that unravel any claims to gritty urban realism.
What Broken City does have in its favor is the cast. Mark Wahlberg stars as Billy Taggart, a disgraced New York cop on trial for the controversial shooting of an exonerated murder suspect. Taggart’s case isn’t going to court; there isn’t enough evidence. But the city’s calculating mayor (Russell Crowe) and enigmatic police commissioner (Jeffrey Wright) tell Taggart they have a video indicating he acted inappropriately. Instead of turning over the information to the prosecution, though, the mayor — a burly, glad-handing man-of-the-people named Hostetler — tells Taggart he’ll let it vanish if Taggart will resign, all in the name of saving the department from scandal.
Taggart reluctantly agrees, and seven years later, he’s scrabbling together a living working as a private eye (one too soft-hearted to collect what he’s owed from clients, just to let you know he’s essentially a good guy).
One day he gets a call from the mayor’s office. Seems payback time has come. The mayor, in the middle of a close political race against a younger, yuppified candidate (Barry Pepper), wants to hire Taggart to follow his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Hostetler believes she’s having an affair that will destroy his chance to remain in office, New Yorkers being too finicky to vote for a cuckold, though they will root for the Jets. Taggart takes the job — the pay is good — and discovers that Mrs. Hostetler seems to be canoodling with the opponent’s campaign manager (Kyle Chandler).
Broken City is one of those movies in which characters keep reminding you that nothing is what it seems, and sure enough, there’s more going on here than mere infidelity. But the audience is hard-pressed to follow exactly what it is. The main problem is that what’s at stake is not terribly inflammatory when you consider some of the political debacles of the past decades. The scandal from which all the violence erupts doesn’t really seem like something that would cause tough politicos to opt for murder. And the resolution, which rides on some highly questionable events — like Taggart showing up in exactly the right place just as the bad guys are throwing crucial secrets into a dumpster instead of shredding them — is patently ridiculous.
Crowe, though, reminds us how effective he can be as Hostetler (after his much-maligned turn as the singing Javert in Les Miserables, that’s probably a good thing). With his false bonhomie, Jersey Shore spray tan and dead shark eyes, he’s a menacing portrait of corruption. Wahlberg is good, too, as the working-class hero who’s made plenty of his own mistakes but hopes to do a good deed in the end, and Alona Tal (Veronica Mars) makes a terrific impression as Taggart’s loyal office assistant even when she’s stuck with lines like “Sing Sing ain’t no place for guys with good hearts.” Still, they’re not enough to put all the pieces of Broken City back together again.
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jeffrey Wright, Barry Pepper, Kyle Chandler, Alona Tal.
Director: Allen Hughes.
Screenwriter: Brian Tucker.
Producers: Remington Chase, Randall Emmett, George Furla, Allen Hughes, Stephen Levinson, Arnon Milchan, Teddy Schwarzman, Mark Wahlberg.
A 20th Century Fox release. Running time: 109 minutes. Pervasive language, some sexual content, violence. Playing at area theaters.