A thrill-free, strangely sluggish political potboiler, “Broken City” suggests that it perhaps wasn’t wise for Allen Hughes to go on his own after co-directing stints with his brother Albert. The one point in its favor is that Russell Crowe at least doesn’t try to sing.
Crowe does, however, rouse himself from the lethargy he brought to Inspector Javert to play Nick Hostetler, the back-slapping, volatile mayor of New York. In a close election campaign against appropriately-named reformist councilman Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper), he hires disgraced cop, now cash-pressed PI Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg), to trail his lovely wife Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones), whom he believes is having an affair.
One might wish that this set-up would lead to something mysteriously sinister in the vein of Hitchcock’s ’Vertigo.” Unfortunately, Brian Tucker’s script goes off in a far more conventional, much less interesting direction. The model is old-fashioned film noir, but it’s a botched job involving secrets on both sides of the political divide—and in Taggart’s past, too. It wouldn’t be fair to reveal too many of the details, however far-fetched they might be, but it’s symptomatic of the screenplay’s poverty of invention that the MacGuffin is a contract about a real estate transaction that our hero happens upon after rummaging about in a box of trash for about five seconds.
“Broken City” has action set-pieces, of course—a fight between Taggart and a ruthless thug, a car chase. But they’re curiously unexciting, largely because of poor staging (attributable to Hughes and cinematographer Ben Seresin) and ineffectual editing (Cindy Mollo). And it’s weighed down by one subplot concerning Taggart’s love life with aspiring actress Natalie Barrow (Natalie Martinez), whose debut in a terrible-looking indie movie wastes far too much screen time, and another about hard-nosed police commissioner Carl Fairbanks (Jeffrey Wright), who’s engaged in machinations of his own.
Wahlberg muddles through the movie with a smidgen of charm but not much conviction, looking understandably bored during the numerous stakeout sequences, and in the scenes he shares with Crowe, he simply fades into the background and allows Hizzoner to chew up the scenery. (Taggart’s supposed to be a recovering alcoholic, but the plot turn when he falls off the wagon and belts down what seems to be a fifth of whiskey without seeming at all the worse for wear comes off as rather unconvincing as Wahlberg plays it.) Zeta-Jones, meanwhile, is more model than actress this time around, and it looks as if most of her dialogue was dubbed in post-production. With the best will in the world, it’s hard to imagine that the sallow-faced Pepper could be taken seriously as a populist (and popular) mayoral candidate, even if Tucker puts into his mouth lines that sound as though they were lifted from speeches by President Obama (and really aren’t appropriate for a local, rather than national race anyway).
Among others caught up in the byzantine but pedestrian plot, with his bald pate and stern manner Wright reminds one of Megamind or Ming the Merciless, and Kyle Chandler is all vacuous integrity as Valliant’s campaign manager. As a business crony of Hostetler, Griffin Dunne looks more than ever like Harry Dean Stanton. Alona Tal, however, provides a few engaging moments as Taggart’s feisty secretary—the sort of gal one might have found working in Sam Spade’s outer office.
A small phalanx of producers—including Hughes and Wahlberg—are credited on “Broken City,” but they haven’t been very successful in providing the picture with a production (designed by Tom Duffield, with art direction by Christina Eunji Kim) that’s anything more than mediocre. Certainly the New York locations deserve better than this.
A surprisingly large number of movies have been “Broken,” title-wise, and some of them have actually been pretty good. Unfortunately, this isn’t one of them.