Studios love nothing better than predictability, so since Mark Wahlberg had a tidy January hit last year with Contraband, it was no surprise when Fox slotted his new thriller Broken City for the same weekend in 2013. But while Contraband was a far-fetched yet fun action movie, Broken City turns out to be something very different, essentially a more dim-witted modern-day gloss on Chinatown.
Wahlberg has the J.J. Gittes role, here named Billy Taggart, a former cop with a past (this time in New York rather than LA) who’s now a down-on-his-luck private eye. He’s hired for a seemingly routine piece of adultery surveillance–well, routine but for the political implications, since the client who wants his wife followed is the city’s Mayor Hostetler (Russell Crowe), who’s in the middle of a reelection campaign, and the spouse (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is quickly linked with Paul Andrews (Kyle Chandler), campaign manager to Hostetler’s electoral rival Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper). Inevitably, murder follows, along with the revelation of a much bigger scandal that has more to do with greed and draining the city’s resources (land, not water, this time around) than sex.
A screenwriter (in this case Brian Tucker) seeks comparison with Robert Towne’s legendary Chinatown script at his own peril, and nothing in Broken City measures up to its forebear. This movie is simplistic and lacking in diversion and detail (rather than the intricacies of Towne’s plotting, here we get Taggart literally finding critical plot points by rummaging through garbage) and it’s also quite predictable for anyone who’s seen either Chinatown or its many other imitators–it doesn’t take much prescience to look at the Mayor’s sleazily jocular bonhomie and know that he’s about as trustworthy as John Huston’s Noah Cross. (No one these days, however, at least on the big screen, has the nerve of Towne and particularly director Roman Polanski, who fought for Chinatown‘s classic ending, so this one is somewhat less bleak.) It also feels oddly old-fashioned, despite the cellphones that figure into the plot, as though the characters would have been more comfortable sending telegrams to one another.
For a while, you root for Broken City to work, because despite its shortcomings, it attempts to be more substantial than the usual movie thriller these days (there is, at least, a plot). Wahlberg goes somewhat darker than his typical lunchbucket hero and carries it off well, and the depth of the cast is a continual pleasure (apart from those named, Jeffrey Wright, Griffin Dunne and Michael Beach are among those making appearances). But whether because of script problems or too much postproduction editing, Broken City doesn’t sustain its own storylines. The backstory of Taggart and his aspiring actress girlfriend Natalie (Natalie Martinez) seems like it could have been quite interesting, but no sooner do we fully understand what’s been going on between them that she vanishes from the movie, as does Zeta-Jones for long stretches of the story. And no movie that made an issue out of a key character being sober for 7 years has featured less consequence when that character falls off the wagon. Meanwhile, so much time is spent with Taggart and his gal Friday assistant (Alona Tal) that we expect to learn more about her, but we never do. Instead we get Crowe sneering with a terrible New York accent, and a Mayoral debate sequence that’s three times as long as it needs to be.
Director Allen Hughes (with his brother Albert, he made such films as Menace II Society, Dead Presidents and The Book of Eli; this is his first solo project) does some interesting visual moves with cinematographer Ben Seresin, sometimes isolating figures with deliberately blurred backgrounds to play up their almost hallucinatory disorientation, and tracking among the characters during some of the lengthy dialogue scenes. But Hughes is also responsible for the uneven acting, and the choppy storytelling that allows the audience to get fatally ahead of the narrative.
Broken City could have been fixed, with some rewriting and a more elegant structure. Instead, it works neither as a procedural nor as a twisty noir. It all falls apart in a New York minute.
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