‘Broken City’ good only in bits and pieces

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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The Mayor (Russell Crowe) subtly threatens his wife, the citys First Lady (Catherine Zeta-Jones), whom he suspects might be undermining his plans in a scene from Broken City. (Barry Wetcher/Twentieth Century Fox)

Broken City, a new thriller starring Mark Wahlberg and Russell Crowe, is the kind of movie that can leave you talking to yourself.

As in: Is that all you’ve got?

As in: I’ve been waiting a long time for this to make sense, and the best you can come up with is a punch line?

As in: You mean some of the main characters really are as stupid as they seemed?

Sigh.

Written by Brian Tucker and directed by Allen Hughes (more often known for co-directing with his brother Albert), Broken City has the look and at times the tension of good film noir, and respectable performances by Jeffrey Wright and Russell Crowe — although he is seen acting far better in Les Misérables. (Acting, I said. We’ll discuss his singing another time.)

But Broken City has one of those trust-no-one/corruption-is-systemic plots, which in this case includes some highly unlikely actions, a lack of clarity about at least one key character and an ending that’s so weak that it’s like the last leaky release of hot air from a steadily shrinking balloon. It is a movie that begs for more action and a faster pace, if only to keep you from thinking of all the places the story goes wrong.

Broken City stars Mark Wahlberg as yet another flawed character, in this case a former police detective in New York City. As the movie begins, Wahlberg’s Billy Taggart has been accused of murdering a known criminal. The shooting, which may have been justified, makes Taggart a hero to some; still, there is a witness who might make defending Taggart much more difficult — until the mayor, Nicholas Hostetler (Crowe) and a top police official, Carl Fairbanks (Wright) hide the witness and evidence to save Taggart’s image.

His image, that is, but not his job. Told to resign from the force, Taggart becomes a private detective, mainly shadowing unfaithful spouses. After seven years, Taggart gets a call from the mayor, who wants Taggart to find out if Hostetler’s wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is being unfaithful before the scandal gets out during the mayor’s tight re-election campaign against a reformer challenger (Barry Pepper).

Need I tell you that Taggart soon finds that there is more to the case than infidelity? That is no longer clear who is good and who is bad? That Taggart’s own life begins to unravel, as long-suppressed demons emerge?

So it goes. But it does not go very well. Again, I kept waiting for the movie to deliver on the hinted promise of better things. But Taggart, let’s face it, is not too bright — and far too unlikely to question what is happening to and around him, or even to show much curiosity.

A lot of the movie takes place in a small circle of characters, and in a surprisingly calm city. The murder of a significant character seems to spark very little excitement or inquiry from the community at large; in a business where gossip is power, no one in the movie seems aware of a plot revelation that would have been common knowledge in the power classes of a city like this. (In addition, that revelation would probably have prompted a big “So?” if widely known.) The mayor, for that matter, navigates New York with no evidence of either confidantes or an entourage.

Sure, you get Wright doing his concisely menacing thing, and Crowe’s performance, which carries more than a few echoes of Bill Clinton, and a nice little bit where he almost gently conveys menace to Zeta-Jones. But there are other pieces, not only in plot but also in trying to give Wahlberg’s character some texture, which are pushed together awkwardly at best. But those are no more than bits and pieces spread across a film that is not as broken as the city — but only because its pieces did not fit in the first place.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.


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