As a political crime thriller, Broken City is light on the ‘political’, the ‘criminal’ and the ‘thriller’ elements. Yep, that’s right – it fails on all fronts.
It doesn’t lack fine ingredients. Mark Wahlberg is in his comfort zone as aggressive ex-cop Billy Taggart. Opposite him, Russell Crowe goes villainous as the seemingly untouchable mayor who is implicated in some seriously shady dealings. And there’s a supporting cast including Barry Pepper, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Jeffrey Wright. We’re all set for an enjoyable (if not cerebral) thriller. Unfortunately, though, the film never even manages to hit this fairly unambitious target.
We begin with NYPD detective Taggart, in the dock after the controversial shooting of a young rapist who had walked free on a technicality. With the aid of Mayor Nicholas Hostetler (Crowe) and Captain Fairbanks (Wright), some crucial evidence is lost and Taggart escapes prison, although at the cost of his career. Seven years later, Taggart is scraping by as a private investigator and the mayor is up for reelection. When Hostetler asks him to spy on his unfaithful wife Cathleen (Zeta-Jones), Taggart is soon mixed up in a sordid and violent world for which he is unprepared.
Director Allen Hughes has brought us some uninspired piddle in the past – I’m thinking From Hell and The Book of Eli, and this film is no exception. It’s severely undernourished. Marky Mark’s normally effortless charisma strains against a script that portrays him as an unsympathetic and paparazzo-esque thug. With a decent script, Russell Crowe’s character could have been a compelling antagonist: his superficial charm in front of the cameras contrasts well with the vicious invective and threats that he uses in private. Sadly, though, his actions are too limited for him to shine. There are only two of them: ordering the odd killing, and telling some rich people to shred their documents. I wanted more.
If the baddies had had more to do, maybe this film wouldn’t have been so lacking in suspense. A few more heavies and corrupt cops would have given an indication of the mayor’s influence and made the fights more nail-biting. And the limited action there is can’t make up for the insipid conspiracy; we get a couple of brief punch ups, and the only thing coming close to a car chase is cut short after a meagre 15 seconds. The whole film is less than two hours long; bulking it up with a few more – and longer – exhilarating moments wouldn’t have been overkill.
Of the main cast, Zeta-Jones – as a wife who loathes and fears her monstrous husband – is the most impressive. Jeffrey Wright is also very likeable, but any potentially interesting ambiguity about his character is squandered. Russell Crowe is reminiscent of many a corrupt politician with magnificent chutzpah (e.g. Rod Blagojevich), but he is completely wasted on this film. The ending is relatively satisfying with some nice cathartic moments, but it can’t redeem an overall mediocre film that you’ll probably have forgotten within a week. If you want a good dose of Russell Crowe, corruption and the big city, go and watch L.A. Confidential on DVD instead.