Broken City (2013)
“Proof can be a powerful weapon”
Director: Allen Hughes
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe, Catherine Zeta-Jones
Synopsis: In a city rife with injustice, ex-cop Billy Taggart seeks redemption and revenge after being double-crossed and then framed by its most powerful figure: Mayor Nicholas Hostetler.
Broken City has the feel of one of those movies which seemed like a great idea while residing in the mind of writer Brian Tucker, but which contained some integral flaw which only became apparent once the story had been committed to paper (or hard drive). Then, like a small lie that grows to monstrous proportions as further lies are added to it in order to retain its believability, more and more changes had to be incorporated into the original story until it began to resemble some Heath Robinson contraption cobbled together from whatever happened to be lying about. What other reason can there be for plot contrivances that ambush the audience at regular intervals, ruthlessly challenging our ability to suspend disbelief until we reach breaking point. The fact that it somehow remains entertaining while slowly imploding is probably thanks more to a terrific cast than the quality of the script.
The story opens with a brief prologue in which we see scruffy NY cop Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) standing over the body of a teenager he’s just shot. We later learn that the teenager had previously got off from charges of the rape and murder of a teenage girl with whose sister Taggart subsequently begins a relationship. Despite public protests, a grand jury finds there isn’t enough evidence to convict Taggart, but City mayor Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe) informs him that he’ll have to step down as a police officer. Fast-forward seven years and Taggart’s now a private detective, and still in a relationship with Natalie (Natalie Martinez), the sister of the murdered girl. Hostetler employs Taggart to trail his wife (Catharine Zeta-Jones), whom he suspects is having an affair which might prove damaging to his chances in the upcoming elections, to find out the identity of her lover.
It doesn’t take long for Taggart to identify the other man as Paul Andrews (Kyle Chandler), the campaign manager for Jack Valiant (Barry Pepper), Hostetler’s opponent in the electoral race. Despite the attempted intervention of Hostetler’s wife, Taggart delivers photographs of her with Andrews to the mayor in return for the second half of his fee, but shortly afterwards Andrews is shot dead in the street, and Taggart slowly comes to realise that he’s been set up as an accessory to murder.
Corruption at the heart of politics is nothing new, and Broken City adds nothing new to an over-familiar subject. The untrustworthiness of Hostetler is apparent from his very first scene, but Russell Crowe at least appears to be having a huge amount of fun playing the part and is a lot more convincing as a charming but sleazy political crook than he is as leading hero. But the problem with knowing that Hostetler is the villain of the piece, and therefore must have some ulterior motive for employing Taggart, robs the story of any real mystery, and leaves it with nearly two hours in which to tortuously spell out the details of Hostetler’s dastardly plot (and, yeah, rest assured that property development lies at the heart of it all). To be fair, this aspect of the movie, while lacking originality, is at least plausible, but there are so many things that threaten to derail the movie completely that it’s a wonder we don’t come away from it all with a worse impression than we do.
Mark Wahlberg’s limitations as an actor have been apparent since he first decided to pursue a career on the screen. There’s no reason to put him down for that — after all, there are plenty of worse actors who have enjoyed long A-list careers over the years. But when he’s placed in a movie opposite the likes of Barry Pepper, Jeffrey Wright and Crowe, his shortcomings are embarrassingly emphasised. Compare, for example, his depiction of drunkenness following the break-up from his girlfriend during which he shouts at cars and tussles with passers-by, and that of the drunken performance a few minutes later of Barry Pepper. In fact, don’t bother because there is no comparison. Ask yourself instead why, after receiving a call in the midst of his drunken spree, Taggart arrives at a murder scene stone cold sober. In fact, ask yourself why exactly he was invited to the murder scene in the first place, and why police commissioner Fairbanks (Jeffrey Wright), after more or less accusing Taggart of the murder, then asks him to help him out moments later. Such are the inconsistencies of Broken City, a prime example of a good idea that became a poor movie…