Quick Take: Broken City isn't broken per se, but it could a decent amount of patch work.
The story of how the new film, Broken City came to be is actually better than the film itself. Originally optioned in 2008, the script by Brian Tucker languished in development hell until finally being resurrected in 2011 by Allen Hughes (one half of the Hughes brothers, responsible for films such at Book of Eli, Menace II Society, and From Hell). Once the script was salvaged, Regency Pictures (Heat, L.A. Confidential) stepped in and worked together with two other production companies and fast-tracked the project, casting Mark Wahlberg and Russell Crowe as the leads. Finally, what was once considered one of the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood is about to see the light of day. The question is, were the pre-production struggles worth it?
Broken City opens with Detective Billy Taggert (Mark Wahlberg) holding a smoking gun (literally) and standing over the dead body of a kid in a project development in New York City. As Billy stands trial for possible wrongdoing in the shooting, Mayor Hostetler (Russell Crowe) and Billy’s captain, Carl Fairbanks (Jeffrey Wright) decide that regardless of the trial’s outcome, Billy must be relived of duty to protect the city. As he is fired, the mayor tells Billy that he feels that Billy did a good job, and that he will never forget Billy’s service to the city.
Flash forward seven years later, and Billy is now a struggling private investigator, struggling to make ends meet and taking low-level clients who can’t pay. As the bills pile up, a call from the mayor changes everything. In the heat of a nasty mayoral campaign against City Councilman Jack Valliant (Berry Pepper), the mayor thinks that his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is having an affair and asks Billy to prove it before the election. But of course, as with all noir crime dramas, nothing is as it seems and Billy finds himself up against forces greater than he could have ever imagined.
The story of Broken City is decent for this type of film, but the execution is lacking. Stilted dialogue and unbelievable logic jumps hinder the effect of the greater storytelling. Characters seem to appear, develop, and then disappear for no reason, and the end of the film wraps up a little too nicely for my tastes. What could have easily been the Chinatown or L.A. Confidential of this millennium actually falls way short and resembles more of a Cannon Films/ Golan-Globus production from the mid-1980s.
The directing is well done, and the cinematography is top notch, especially the breathtaking opening shot of Billy and the smoking gun. There are unique camera angles that really create a sense of old-school filmmaking. Allen Hughes has proved that he can make a film separate from his brother Albert, especially when juggling a cast this large and story this expansive. Hughes never gets lost in the characters or the action, and is able to wield control to tell the story.
The performances are adequate as Mark Wahlberg plays Billy as he plays every other character (when NOT directed by Scorsese), a rough around the edges tough guy with a soft heart when it matters. Russell Crowe is serviceable as Mayor Hostetler, and Catherine Zeta-Jones (who still looks fantastic) shines as the first lady of New York, even though her part and role are both terribly underdeveloped.
The best performances in Broken City come from Berry Pepper (*61, Saving Private Ryan) and Jeffrey Wright (Casino Royale, Basquiat). Both actors turn their roles into something greater than what was on the page, and Wright has some of the best lines, delivered with his usual aplomb.
It would be so easy to call Broken City a “broken film,” but that wouldn’t be fair. A better written conclusion and dialogue could have escalated this film much higher in the pantheon of crime dramas. There are plot points hinted at, and aren’t as clear as they probably should be. The fault of this film falls squarely on Brian Tucker’s script, which makes the story of how this film came to be even more puzzling. As it stands now, Broken City is a decent film that could have been so much more.
Broken City is rated R and opens everywhere on January 18, 2013.