Broken City director Allen Hughes and writer Brian Tucker aim high in an attempt to rustle up the tough New York crime dramas of the '70s. It's an admirable goal, but the movie's attempts to keep you guessing ultimately trip it up in the end.
Broken City is full of dirty businessmen, politicians and cops; even the mayor's wife is up to no good. Is there anyone who isn't dirty in this town? Enter Billy Taggart, a private dick who was divested of his police badge after he shot a young man. Sure, Billy was acquitted, and the kid was a rapist and murderer who walked on a technicality, but the people wanted a sacrificial lamb. Mayor Hostetler and Commissioner Fairbanks let good ol' Billy go, with the mayor promising he'd call him someday and make it up to him. Seven years later, and the mayor wants to know who his wife is stepping out with. He offers Billy $50 grand to follow her and find out who she's cheating on him with before next week's mayoral election. Naturally, plenty of double-crossing ensues, but as the movie picks up speed, Hughes and Tucker throw more and more at us until it peters out to a lackluster end.
The real dirt here is real estate. A financial firm has bought Bolton Village, a low-income housing complex, which the mayor promises will be a great deal for all New Yorkers. It is, of course, an even better deal for his cronies. (He also promises that the deal won't displace any of the tenants, but...) Although there are few things New Yorkers love to talk about more than the price of real estate (it's perhaps the only city on Earth where you can ask your host how much s/he paid for such swell digs), Broken City doesn't convince us it's such a deadly game. The movie tries to illustrate why it's important by narrowing its focus just a bit to give some background on why Billy and his girlfriend Natalie are particularly interested in the future of Bolton Village, but it only serves to cloud already muddied waters instead of giving it the stronger emotional core it needs. Broken City's narrative tries to address one of the biggest issues facing New York City today, which is the gross financial disparity among its citizens. That's a noble goal, but a difficult one to dramatize.
The jockeying between Hostetler and rival Jack Valliant is its weakest part, especially when the politicians begin mouthing political jargon. We want to see more of the juicy stuff: Billy's snapping photos, the gross latent violence barely concealed by Hostetler, or even the other secret goings-on that I can only allude to. One of the plot elements is surely there to toss in a dash of human interest, but it's handled so awkwardly that the movie would have been better without it. Additionally, naming a golden-haired do-gooder character ''Jack Valliant'' should be considering a fireable offense. On that same token, some of the aural cues, like DMX's ''Up in Here'' in the background of a bar scene where Billy has a meltdown, are none too subtle.
Still, the cast isn't too bad, especially for a crime thriller dumped in January. Mark Wahlberg, who is an expert at these tough guys with troubled pasts, handles Billy; he's definitely no angel, but his most damning actions are somehow justified in this upside-down world. Wahlberg meets a good match in Russell Crowe as Hostetler, a sleazy, moneyed menace; he's an old school, day-drinking businessman who prides himself on his working-class upbringing and being a man of the people even as he pulls their rent-controlled rug out from under them. Valliant, an Ivy Leaguer from Connecticut, is played by Barry Pepper, whose WASPy good looks landed him a part as Bobby on The Kennedys mini-series.
Then there's Catherine Zeta-Jones as Crowe's better half; she's dedicated to human rights causes and desperate to get away from her monstrous husband. There's not too much to her other than that. Luckily for Zeta-Jones, the character is a bit of an ice queen (the actress is not much for emoting these days). Kyle Chandler has a smaller part as Valliant's campaign manager, and other famous faces that pop up include Jeffrey Wright (Fairbanks), Griffin Dunne, and James Ransone from Treme and The Wire. TV's Alona Tal has a nice little role as Billy's assistant Katy, a smart and cool college student that's pretty refreshing.
All in all, Broken City is a little bit smarter than you might think at first glance. Although it gets too sloppy by the end, it's not a bad ride.
Hollywood.com rated this film 2 1/2 stars.