Whilst sadly stale in its overall delivery, there are still some delights to be found in Allen Hughes’ fusion of political thriller with noir pot-boiler, Broken City (2013), which stars Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe and Catherine Zeta-Jones. The New York of the film seethes with seediness, a hive of both corruption and vice. We open to Wahlberg’s protag, Billy Taggart, standing trial for the murder of an African American teen. Seven years on, and the ex-cop is now a seedy private eye, taking snaps of unfaithful husbands and wives. The worm turns, and he is invited into the presence of Mayor Hostetler (Crowe), who aided Taggart seven years previously in his trial.
Hostetler needs our hard-knuckled private eye to dig up the dirt on his wife, Cathleen (Zeta-Jones). With an election around the corner, Taggart sniffs a rat, realising that the true motivation for his employment is to dig up the dirt on Hostetler’s political opponent Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper), unearthing a tale of political corruption and real estate.
Broken City’s central performances are surprisingly enjoyable given their generic approach, and are solidly acted for the most part – if over-delivered at points. Wahlberg feels at home pouring out that bullish Brooklyn drawl, his tough guy/sensitive heart shtick working in the role of Taggart, though hardly stretching The Fighter (2010) star. Crowe, on the other hand, puts in one of his better performances to date, fitting (if a little too snugly) into his crisp-cut suit, throwing back whiskeys whilst adorned in a near-fluorescent orange tan. Crowe’s Hostetler is just the right side of untrustworthy throughout, enjoyably lording around each scene, while holding back that Fightin’ Around the World rage that he so often exudes.
However, the central problem with Hughes’ Broken City is that we have seen this all timeless times before – and done with much greater refinement. It’s impossible not to draw comparisons with Roman Polanski’s 1974 classic Chinatown, as Wahlberg attempts to slide into Jack Nicholson’s shoes, only to find that they’re aircraft hangers on his little feet. Noirish in tone, it never elevates itself to anything great, as the twists and turns provide little surprise or genuine revelation.
The moments of greatest pleasure are ironically found in the contrivances of action movies. We get sprawling shots of downtown New York and zipping car chases punching out of the dull moments of an overly-contrived script. Yet these fun moments hang in the rafters, fading into the side streets of Broken City as Hughes attempts to coerce us into taking him seriously as an innovative director.