Broken City – Film Review

Director: Allen Hughes

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Kyle Chandler and Jeffrey Wright

Released: 1 March, 2013

Broken City begins with a bang – literally. An introductory flashback shows maverick cop Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) clutching a smoking gun in a grey-scale city street, looking disheveled and breathing heavily, bracing us for some Wahlbergian action. Yet when this scene recurs later in the film – a flashback TO a flashback, in effect – it confirms what the audience have suspected for most of the runtime: that we have, indeed, seen it all before.

The Broken City of the title is New York, and it’s in pieces from the outset, when the trigger-happy Taggart walks from a potential murder charge thanks to some well-timed intervention from the Mayor (Russell Crowe). Seven years and a career change later, the struggling private detective Taggart is offered a lucrative sum to investigate the Mayor’s wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones), embroiling him in a scandal much more complex and dangerous than he could have suspected, involving a $4 billion housing project sale, an upcoming city election, and corporate collusion that goes all the way to the top…

Broken City is a valiant attempt at a hard-boiled, neo-noir thriller. Straight away, the movie offers political contrivances, sexual intrigue, and Taggart getting his hands dirty – and bloody – to get results.  However, it can’t maintain the momentum and promise of its opening scenes, and the continuous introduction of new characters with different motives, while not hard to follow, confuses narrative complexity with convolution. The attempted twists ultimately feel inconsequential, while subplots about a high-stakes mayoral debate and Taggart’s actress girlfriend ultimately serve as mere McGuffins to get him drunk and angry.

The cast all perform admirably with the thinly-drawn character outlines sketched for them in Mark Tucker’s clichéd and dialogue-poor script, packed full of unnecessarily sexist and homophobic slurs. Crowe’s Mayor Hostatler comes off particularly badly in terms of this, comparing his wife to ‘a bitch in heat’ and criticizing ‘fag angles’; yet he plays the character undeniably well, physically inhabiting the role with a middle-aged haircut and a delightful New York-via-Sydney accent. Similarly, Wahlberg does the very best he can as Taggart, the frown remaining on his face throughout not only representing the grim situation in which the private eye finds himself, but also a clear testament to the hard work involved in bringing any kind of humanity or likeability to this character.

The problem is that there is nothing new or surprising offered, right down to the casting: who has not previously seen Wahlberg as a troubled detective, Crowe as a smooth-talking cad, or Zeta-Jones as a reserved, sharp-tongued trophy wife? Even Kyle Chandler, a cult TV star who has had limited big-screen exposure, is basically replaying the small roles he had in Argo and Zero Dark Thirty as a political advisor.

The same could be said for the aesthetic of Allen Hughes’ directorial style, whose work on From Hell, The Book of Eli and Menace II Society is sometimes evoked in Taggart’s violent outbursts and the hazy bleakness of Broken City’s urban environment, but this mostly comes off as a very dated approach. A scene that best encapsulates this is the ‘dark night of the soul’ scene after Taggart falls off the wagon which, when presented in this unoriginal manner, veers dangerously close to parody.

The band Starship once said, ‘we built this city on rock and roll.’ While that is not an advisable or solid foundation for a long-term urban project, neither is the reliance on outdated tropes and frankly deus-ex-machina methods of resolution, which is probably why Broken City is not called Fully Functional City. (That, and marketing.)

Broken City hearkens back to hard-boiled thrillers like Chinatown and The French Connection, but in its execution ends up being a much more scrambled concoction.

Score: 2/5

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