“Broken City” is an evocative and over-ambitious title for a so-so political potboiler that wants to be a gritty, expansive epic of moral and urban decay. A mayor’s re-election bid collides with an ex-cop’s quest for redemption in director Allen Hughes’ competent but juiceless New York melodrama, an unpersuasive marriage of head-slamming action and middling civic intrigue that treats issues like gay rights and public housing as red herrings rather than actual talking points. Despite a prestige cast led by Mark Wahlberg and Russell Crowe, Fox’s mid-January release probably won’t grab the rather serious-minded mainstream contingent it’s courting.
Not without its weighty aspirations, Brian Tucker’s first-produced screenplay nonetheless seems to have just missed its moment with its tale of a contentious election season pitting government cronyism against working-class concerns. Still, a pre-November rollout wouldn’t have necessarily breathed fresh life into a story that offers a rather too glib and dramatically tidy peek inside the corridors of power.
Although it reps the first solo helming effort by one of the Hughes Brothers, “Broken City” feels of a piece with the sibling helmers’ past studies of violent crime and other social ills. A portentous, slow-panning opening shot establishes Billy Taggart (Wahlberg) as one of New York’s not-so-finest, having gunned down a gang member allegedly in self-defense. Billy doesn’t go to trial but his indiscretion gets him thrown off the force, a politically expedient decision made by Mayor Hostetler (Crowe) and NYPD Commissioner Fairbanks (Jeffrey Wright) in one of several closed-door meetings.
Seven years later, Billy is barely getting by as a private investigator until he receives a call from Hostetler, offering $50,000 in exchange for evidence that his wife, Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones), is having an affair. Billy’s snooping leads him to conclude that Cathleen’s lover is none other than Paul Andrews (Kyle Chandler), campaign manager for Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper), a city councilman hoping to unseat Hostetler in the upcoming mayoral race. Naturally, this revelation is far too juicy and preposterous to be the whole story, and Billy turns out to be the mayor’s unwitting pawn in a vast, painful conspiracy centered around a multibillion-dollar deal to level a public housing project.
As various secrets spill out and bodies begin to surface, the detective joins the crusade to take down Hostetler and, in the process, settle an old score. Yet by the time the script gets around to bringing Billy’s dark history into play, it feels like a gimmicky narrative trump card rather than an organically developed aspect of the character. Wahlberg’s Billy is a recovering alcoholic and maybe a cold-blooded killer, but really, he’s just a blank slab of muscle the movie needs to drive the momentum forward, someone to engage in high-speed pursuits, attack guys with baseball bats and generally keep audiences from nodding off during the talkier stretches.
Still, even when the script merely skims the surface of the political agenda items it raises, its crisp dialogue often shows a measure of rhetorical force, particularly in a fiery, over-the-top debate between Pepper’s challenger and Crowe’s incumbent. Rattling off streams of cynical, condescending language in a sturdy enough Queens accent, Crowe lends the megalomaniacal mayor a certain plain-spoken, epithet-strewn eloquence, while Wright, Chandler and Zeta-Jones are effective enough in roles that don’t require them to do much more than embody a certain type.
Of the ensemble’s lesser-known names, Alona Tal achieves a modestly snappy rapport with Wahlberg as Billy’s girl Friday, while Natalie Martinez, as the detective’s aspiring-actress wife, socks over two potent scenes that have no direct connection to the plot and are all the more intriguing for it.
Supplementing Gotham locations with New Orleans exteriors, the picture achieves a reasonable visual facsimile of its intended setting, ably captured in Ben Seresin’s widescreen lensing and Tom Duffield’s sometimes pretty, sometimes gritty production design. Other tech elements are pro.