The complex and confusing Broken City fills a basic January gap - just don't think too hard about it.
January is a tough month to get your film released. With Oscars on the horizon, theaters are crowded with people checking out nominees, even if some have no right being there. Usually it's for a good reason: most of these films are stuck at the corner of Best Intentions and Poor Execution, with only a few surviving in people's minds long enough before the summer season sweeps all of them under the rug. But 2013 is shaping up to be the most memorable in years, with Gangster Squad and the newest addition, Broken City, even though both are a little flawed.
After a highly-publicized shooting by New York detective Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg, Contraband) results in both his exoneration and forced resignation, Taggart opens a private detective agency. His days are spent taking pictures of cheating spouses and attempting to collect on unpaid debts by former clients. All that changes when the man responsible for his exoneration - Mayor Hostetler (Russell Crowe, Gladiator) - employs Taggart to investigate the man who is cheating on his wife Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Entrapment). Hostetler is also involved in a bitter re-election campaign against Councilmember Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper, True Grit 2010), who is stunned that the Mayor has sold a troubled section of New York apartments to a powerful developer. As Billy tracks Catherine's movements, he begins to suspect Valiant's campaign manager Kyle Chandler (Paul Andrews, Zero Dark Thirty) is involved; however, when he's murdered outside of Valiant's home, Billy unravels a mystery much deeper and darker than the affair itself. Caught between protecting the mayor and his duty as both a PI and former cop, Taggart makes an impossible decision that could ultimately lead to his own end.
To say this movie is convoluted is to make a huge understatement, and I've only scratched the surface - Act 3 is a fairly wild ride, complete with a nice car chase and a brutal put down by Taggart. However, things get so structurally confusing in Act 2 that one is left within a major plot hole while trying to understand why Taggart would ever associate himself with the mumbling Police Commissioner Carl Fairbanks (Jeffrey Wright, Quantum of Solace), who's identified early on as his enemy. I love movies with twists, especially those at the end, but newbie Writer Brian Tucker throws too many of them at us, delivering high-speed fast balls rather than well-executed breaking pitches. As Taggart realizes that Valiant's sexual appetite includes men, he suddenly and inexplicably switches sides by assisting the hated Fairbanks with the interrogation, dousing Valiant in his own tub. Why Taggart would ever do this, and when he makes the decision to side with his enemy, is unclear; call it what you will, but audiences need to sometimes be lead through the material, especially stuff this dense. Instead, we're forced to accept Taggart's new role rather than why we should even bother. That's not necessary in a comedy, but in a deep and dark drama like Broken City, it's absolutely essential.
Similar befuddlement arises with Taggart's girlfriend actress Natalie Barrow (Natalie Martinez, End of Watch), who appears only long enough for her to leave him, causing the PI to fall off the wagon. From that point on, his downing of whiskey is somehow viewed as cool and necessary to his character. There's no intervention by his secretary Katy (Alona Tal) and strangely no hindrance to his performance. Director Allen Hughes (Book of Eli) assembles a very good cast, doing the best he can with the choppy script, while getting some very good performances from his leads. Hughes also benefits from Composer Atticus Ross (The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo) as he weaves a dark tapestry that matches perfectly with the environment. Crowe is always terrific, and he plays Hostetler with a conviction and dirtiness (including a terrific New York accent) that makes him an immediately unlikable baddie. His performance demonstrates that the dark and slimy characters he portrayed in Les Miserables and Body of Lies weren't just flukes. Even though Wahlberg has been playing in a lot of good-guy-bad-situation roles as of late, he's been shining in them, and Broken City further strengthens his resume. The supporting cast, including Zeta-Jones and the under-used Michael Beach (Stargate: Atlantis) also turn in solid performances during the few scenes they're in. But, nothing kills a movie like a bad script, and City is dripping with holes which no actor could rescue.
City will probably create division among moviegoers who like the visuals and can forgive its shortcomings, while others will shake their heads at those looking the other way. City isn't terrible and even serves a necessary fill for the usual January blahs; but the elimination of a few plot lines would have helped immensely. Released at any other time, it would be unmercifully slammed by critics and suffered an early exit from theaters. For now, enjoy the ride but don't think too much about it - you might regret you came at all. Broken City is rated R for language, brief nudity, and adult situations and has a runtime of 109 minutes.
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