Mark Reviews Movies

Broken City


1 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Allen Hughes

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jeffrey Wright, Barry Pepper, Alona Tal, Natalie Martinez, Michael Beach, Kyle Chandler

MPAA Rating: R (for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence)

Running Time: 1:49

Release Date: 1/18/13

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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 24, 2013

The neo-noir Broken City contains the basics: a hard-edged protagonist, a corrupt system full of crooked players, and a twisting and turning plot in which revelations come to light at the end of nearly every scene in the second act. What the movie lacks and desperately needs is personality. The hidden bits of information that come to light are essentially foregone conclusions; the villains are generic types in an equally standard game of political dishonesty.

As for the hero, he's a private detective, and that's about all there is to him. Sure, he has a devious incident in his past—which later becomes just a plot device—and is just one bad thing away from falling off the wagon, but besides those two traits, he is just the vehicle by which Brian Tucker's screenplay moves from Point A to Point B. There are flashes of some sort of personality to Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg), such as his nonstop bickering with his assistant and a moment in which he surprises a foe by intentionally shooting him in the leg but joking that it was an accident, but the man is no Sam Spade, to say the least.

Taggart is a disgraced former cop in New York City, who, during the prologue, is forced to resign after murder charges against him are dropped. Mayor Hostetler (Russell Crowe) and police chief Carl Fairbank (Jeffrey Wright) inform him that evidence exists that Taggart committed the crime of which he has been accused, and it's best for everyone if he simply slinks away into the shadows. Hostetler thinks Taggart is a hero and promises to remember him if anything comes up in the future.

Seven years later, Taggart's detective practice is in debt. None of his clients will pay him for his services, so a phone call from Hostetler comes at the perfect time. The mayor, up for re-election in the coming days, wants Taggart to look into his wife Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones), whom he suspects is having an affair. He's concerned it might affect his chances at the election, as opposed to a shady, multi-million dollar contract that will put hundreds out of their public housing. Everyone, one character says, knows the mayor's intentions in the deal are insincere; no one, apparently, cares.

Taggart tails Cathleen and her supposed lover Paul Andrews (Kyle Chandler), who happens to the campaign manager of Hostetler's opponent Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper), whose name is as impeccable in its appropriateness as the rest of the movie's discoveries are in their convenience. It's also as subtle as Taggart's investigative techniques, which include conspicuously hiding in plain sight near his already-suspicious targets and whipping out a big camera to snap away, sitting directly in front of Paul on a train and engaging in conservation with him, and sending his secretary (Alona Tal) to pickpocket Cathleen's phone and return it to her.

Needless to say, the affair is a bluff on Tucker's part, and what seems like a fairly standard setup turns out to be even more ordinary. Everything revolves around a fairly confined conspiracy to keep the details of Hostetler's involvement in the public housing deal from the public—you know, the one about which everyone already knows. The details are fuzzy; the characters' motivations are even fuzzier. Paul is apparently holding back on releasing the key (read: only) piece of evidence to his boss so that Cathleen can use it, which makes no sense given that its public release would have the same effect as Cathleen having it. That is unless it's only meant for blackmail purposes, at which point Paul is betraying Valliant—who happens to be more than his boss—for a friendship that the movie establishes through one line of dialogue.

Relationships, like every element of the script, are only useful to move the plot forward. Taggart's actress girlfriend Natalie (Natalie Martinez), for example, exists only to push him off the wagon (after he watches a movie in which she has a sex scene, with an explosion of rage that comes from nowhere) and establish him as a lone man against the world. It might have some relevance if Taggart were a character defined by more than plot necessity. The only respites are an extended car chase, which director Allen Hughes renders even more superfluous in its execution, and political debate, which lets us focus far too long on information that doesn't matter.

Inconsistent and ambiguous plots are to be expected in even the best examples of noir; we forgive those gaps in light of a consistent mood that permeates through their form and characters. Broken City relies entirely on its plot as a crutch, and it's not a stable one.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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