Early on in Broken City Kyle Chandler turns to Mark Wahlberg and asks if Private Investigators still exist. While they almost certainly do, it seems they’re in small numbers these days and yet appear to have had a long-standing love affair with Hollywood. Broken City deals in all things gumshoe related; hard boiled characters, tough-talking dialogue, a supposed femme fatal and a gritty outlook that doesn’t bode well for any of the characters on offer. While the film certainly checks all the right boxes, can it ever hope to break free of the obvious and predictable?
Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) is a former disgraced New York cop. But before he was dumped from the force he made friends with sleaze-ball Mayor Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe). Seven years later, Billy is a struggling private investigator taking ‘money shots’ of cheating spouses. But when Hostetler calls him in to take pictures of his wife Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones), he begins to unravel a conspiracy that incorporates the mayoral election, against newcomer Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper), and a property deal that isn’t quite what it seems. Before long Billy’s in the line of fire and must get to the bottom of the case before he becomes the fall guy.
Originally Wahlberg was only onboard Broken City as a producer but when his first choice for Taggart, a no doubt more brooding Michael Fassbender, passed on the role, Wahlberg took up the part himself. And it’s a good thing too, because Wahlberg is one of the reasons the film works. His endless take no-nonsense-swagger, not to mention his brilliant back-and-forth with assistant Alona Tal – no stranger to a bit of detective work having starred in TV’s Veronica Mars – are easily the most interesting aspects of Broken City.
For all its ideas and staples of the genre, Broken City often feels overly familiar, like a seductive woman flirting up to you with moves so obvious they border on slutty, all the while you’re just a little too aware it’s a honey trap to appreciate it. Director Allen Hughes, working for the first time without his regular directing partner, and brother, Albert, does well to extract a visually engaging style but his Broken City always feels a little too polished. So vibrant is this New York you wonder why anyone would vote against Hostetler if he’s got it working this well. It lacks the seedy underbelly that it’s most obvious influence, Chinatown, has in spades.
The plot is fun and engaging, rife with interesting if slightly predictable characters. Crowe’s mayor is so perma-tanned he looks like he’s joined the cast of The Only Way Is Essex. Add to that any questions about the character’s motives being thrown out the window early on and there’s never doubt that he’s the villain of the piece. Crowe is good in the role, clearly enjoying playing the bullish politician but his character is another example of the predictable nature of the film. Throw in Barry Pepper’s squeaky clean opponent – his surname is Valliant, it hardly leaves much to the imagination – and you begin to realise that Broken City is script writing by numbers. There’s little invention here. That said it keeps the interest and Wahlberg’s presence, as a slightly more flawed hero than we’re used to him playing, is enough to latch on to and keep you invested in, if not the story, at least the characters on display.
Nothing that could not have been fixed, this Broken City has been put together with super-glue but is sturdy enough nonetheless.