A film review by Craig J. Koban January 21, 2013


2013, R, 109 mins.

Billy Taggart: Mark Wahlberg / Mayor Hostetler: Russell Crowe / Cathleen: Catherine Zeta-Jones / Colin Fairbanks: Jeffrey Wright / Jack Valliant: Barry Pepper / Paul Andrews: Kyle Chandler / Sam Lancaster: Griffin Dunne / Natalie: Natalie Martinez

Directed by Allen Hughes / Written by Brian Tucker

I’ve seen this all before.  BROKEN CITY tells the umpteenth, dime-a-dozen story of city hall corruption where unscrupulous and dirty public officials royally try to screw over the little people while one lone and troubled hero – obligatorily in way over his head - tries to stop it all.   There is a bit of dramatic and narrative obviousness that permeates this political crime thriller, but BROKEN CITY gets by rather well on the appeal and rock steady reliability of its well assembled cast, some truly thankless and stylish direction, and some crackerjack scenes featuring characters confronting one another with crisply forthright and articulated dialogue. 

Mark Wahlberg plays a character that, to be fair, he has occupied perhaps one time too many to the point of it becoming a cliché: the ferociously strong and hot tempered, but breathlessly sincere and tender tough guy/anti-hero.   He’s Billy Taggart, a once proud New York cop that was forced to resign rather unceremoniously after a very controversial shooting that left one accused rapist dead.  He manages to get off on all the charges levied against him, and just after his trial commences he is whisked away to meet the mayor, Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe) and the city police chief, Carl Fairbanks (Jeffrey Wright).  The mayor believes that Billy is a hero for killing a perp that his city's streets no longer need, but the always-questioning police chief remains unsure. 

The mayor does confide in Billy that some very damaging evidence exists that could put Billy away for good, but he agrees to secretly withhold the evidence to keep him out of prison.  He does tell Billy, though, that some day he will be required to return the favor.  Several years go by and Billy – now a down-on-his-luck and nearly bankrupted private eye – is hired by the mayor on a $25,000 retainer to spy on his beautiful trophy wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones), whom he believes is having an affair.  Billy does uncover the identity of the potential adulterer, who just happens to be closely associated with the campaign of his rival, Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper).  Realizing that releasing Billy’s findings to the press could hurt the momentum of his own campaign, Hostetler decides to pay off Billy to stay quiet, but as time goes on and Billy continues to fish for the truth, the more difficult he finds it to keep his mouth shut. 



BROKEN CITY marks the solo directorial debut of Allen Hughes, who previously had a very consistent career of directing movies with his brother, Albert (MENACE II SOCIETY, DEAD PRESIDENTS, FROM HELL, and THE BOOK OF ELI).  The Hughes Brothers tandem has always made stylish and evocatively looking films, and Allen’s unaccompanied effort here continues that already established brotherly aesthetic.  He brings a clean, no-nonsense intimacy to the proceedings, portraying the skylines and streets of New York with equal parts beautiful splendor and brooding intimidation.  Hughes cinematographer, Ben Seresin (who previously shot Tony Scott’s last film, the magnificently tense UNSTOPPABLE) really knows how bring out the authentic grit of the city streets while showing the sometimes expansive, yet oddly claustrophobic conditions of the mayor’s office.  BROKEN CITY is a handsome production through and through. 

The performances are also stellar from the very game and willing cast.  As stated, Wahlberg has played these...well...Wahlbergian types endlessly before, but he perhaps shouldn’t be shunned for being so good at it; he also has nice chemistry with his office assistant (the spunky and energetic Alona Tal) and their respective give-and-take makes their moments stand out.  Russell Crowe is aggressively, but enjoyably sleazy and duplicitous, chewing up scenery like it was going out of style; he’s not quite over-the-top, but not quite subtle here either, which gives his character a level of unpredictable menace.  Barry Pepper gives an authentically impassioned performance as the mayor’s do-gooder rival.  The always-strong character actor Jeffrey Rush perhaps has the trickiest character to play, traversing between loyalties and not precisely letting on where they truly lie.   

The scripting for BROKEN CITY begins rather strong and compellingly, especially in the sense that we know right from the get-go that the mayor has many filthy tricks up his sleeve and that our main protagonist has a definitive skeleton in his own closet (he's not a clean cut hero at all).  Then the story gets more engagingly convoluted with subplots involving crooked land developers that want to turn a rather poor neighborhood apartment community into a mini-metropolis of expensive high-rise condos that will all but end the destitute denizens’ way of life.  This is all tied in with the re-election campaign of the mayor, his own nefarious and selfish plans, and his attempts to subvert Billy from spilling the beans on it.   

Yet, for as intriguingly complex as the overall story of corruption is here, BROKEN CITY gets a bit sidetracked by some peculiar and out-of-place subplots that hurts the overall story’s smooth momentum, not to mention some characters are introduced as germane to the film and then are curiously disposed of.  Catherine Zeta-Jones’ role as the mayor’s wife is both intricately tied to Billy’s internal investigation into the mayor, yet she’s criminally underwritten in the film.  There’s also a distracting plotline that does little to progress the story regarding Billy’s girlfriend (the luminous Natalie Martinez), an indie film actress whose debut party is ruined by Billy’s raging jealousy over her simulated (or were they…?) on-screen sex scenes with her co-star (huh?).  This whole subplot could have been easily excised from the film and made for a more well-paced and assured narrative. 

I have a few other nitpicks, like how the end of the film manages to conclude with possibly too much neatness and tidiness for its own good, especially when you consider the inherent intricacy of the established storyline that came beforehand.  Billy, as far as private investigators go, seems both limitlessly cunning and immeasurably dense and thick skulled throughout the film to be believable.  Yet, BROKEN CITY casts its overall story of a labyrinthine web of municipal fraud and conspiracy rather well and the film maintains a level of twisted luridness throughout (it’s never, ever dull or boring).  That, and Crowe has a field day playing an unmitigated political jerk out to placate his own needs over just about everyone else’s in the film.  Yes, BROKEN CITY reeks of overt familiarity as far as genre films go, but considering the usual mediocrity of January releases it’s a well made and discreetly entertaining diversion.

  H O M E