Film review: “Broken City,” Busted Noir

Broken City covers familiar territory, but this time it’s Marky-Mark to the rescue and he brings a gruff and troubled groundedness to the role of a man on a mission to find out The Truth in a corrupt world.

Broken City. Directed by Allen Hughes. At cinemas around New England.

By Tim Jackson

Local hero Mark Wahlberg in BROKEN CITY

Broken City starts with a gun and ends with a girl. In between march many muscular machinations and mysterious meetings.This testosterone-driven exercise in contemporary film noir features local hero Mark Wahlberg, a blond Russell Crow, and the gauzy and alluring Catherine Zeta-Jones. Exactly who is doing what to whom is the thrill of the chase in this ultimately confused thriller about a power hungry New York Mayor and a flawed but deep-down-decent ex-cop with a dirty secret.

If this sounds like familiar territory, it is, but this time it’s Marky-Mark to the rescue, and as always he brings a gruff and troubled groundedness to the confused character of Billy Taggart, a man on a mission to find out The Truth, and come to terms with his own troubled identity. The truth, of course, will out, and whether Taggert finds solace, self-awareness, cures his bent for demon liquor, or solves his love life pretty much drops by the wayside in favor of a quick wrap up.

Taggart is up against the arrogant and nasty and hostile Mayor Hostetler, played by a blond and droopy-haired Crowe, whose New York accent leaks Aussie now and then. Hostetler has tagged Taggert to come up with evidence of his wife’s infidelity. As Cathleen Hostetler, Catherine Zeta-Jones is all slink and sunglasses. She knows what’s really going on and warns Taggart repeatedly that he doesn’t know the whole story, that the situation is bigger than he thinks, and to get out now. And you believe her because (believe me) you’ve seen this movie before, and the camera circling around and around and around their heads is making you dizzy, and you’ll believe anything to make it stop. Nonetheless, Taggart takes up the mission because he’s agreed to do it. He’s a man of his word no matter the consequences, and, bottom line, we know that he knows that the Mayor knows his dirty secret.

Into the unfolding mystery comes Police Commissioner Carl Fairbanks who, like the audience, may or may not know what’s going on here but provides the requisite hard time for Billy and who will inevitably come to respect the troubled ex-cop. This boilerplate copper is played with fitting gravitas and a giant, bald head by Jeffrey Wright (Basquiat, Angels in America). The bottom line for this wonderful actor is that he needs more roles worthy of his talent.

Eventually, I got the feeling this was a package put together to sell in a slow season. Director Allen Hughes and his twin brother Albert have specialized in exploring urban “sociology” and street mythologies. The two wunderkind entrepreneurs’ earlier success (with Menace II Society) helped them establish their own production and record company, Underworld Entertainment. Hughes is listed as a producer on the film along with Wahlberg and 15 others. Broken City was penned by Brian Tucker, who has no other writing credits to his name.

Seventeen producers joined by one neophyte (or pseudonymous) writer smacks of committee filmmaking cobbled out of package deals. (“Look, sweetheart, Mark can get Albert, who wants to do a cop film. They can convince Wright to come on board. If we can get them, Russ has agreed to do it for a percentage, if we give him equal billing with Mark. Zeta-Jones hasn’t had a hit since ’05 and wants a sexy part but no nude. We get her on the cheap with Crow and Wahlberg on it.”) Of course, I don’t know that is the case, but the film feels like a package of stars and motifs, the aim of which is to produce an audience pleasing mash-up of formulas and a smash-up trailer. (“Look Russ, we can expect some heavy weekend grosses. We’ll have our trailer and ads in 100 cities, particularly heavy in New York and Boston. That oughta generate some sweet back end profits.”)

An intimate moment between Russell Crowe and Catherine Zita-Jones in BROKEN CITY.

I admire well-crafted commercial movie making, and the Hughes bothers, though a little overwrought, can deliver a good time. These are all fun actors. But when you leave as many dangling ends and sub-plots as Broken City does it becomes laughable. Wahlberg’s character has a relationship with the not so cleverly named Natalie, played by ex-Cuban model Natalie Martinez. She is a struggling actress whose actor friends offend Taggart’s more macho sensibilities. After a few gay jokes, apparently to establish the guy’s type A personality, the romance hits the rocks. He goes ballistic and she walks out. An interesting character and side story suddenly evaporate.

As Jack Valliant, the “valiant” candidate running against the mayor, Barry Pepper is miscast. His public debate against Hostetler is so silly and gratuitous it approaches satire. One more actor worth mentioning is Alona Tal as Taggert’s secretary Katy, who plays Robin to his Batman. She continually undertakes dangerous missions to uncover layers of urban corruption and deception. Does she love him? I guess so. Does he love her? Apparently no one cares. Tal, an Israeli actress, is a beautiful and charismatic performer and important to the film, but her role is brazenly underwritten. If this is meant to be a psychological-thriller noir, at least give the actors, and the audience, a chance to enjoy characters with psyches worth trying to figure out.

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