The disappointing thing about Broken City is that there’s actually a lot to like. This is a genuine, honest-to-God modern noir: The protagonist, Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg), is an endearingly clunky, old school private eye. The plot begins in matters both seedy and mundane. Most of tension is built around secrets and stealth rather than violence.
Tonally, the whole thing is just the right amount of overcooked. Even the names conjure up a Humphrey Bogart flick: Taggart, Valliant, Hostetler, Fairbanks. The film makes a real — and at least somewhat successful — play for deeper political meaning and relevance.
Unfortunately, the script is hit or miss. The movie suffers moments of bad exposition, overkill, and extraordinary fumbles. A throwdown between Taggart and his girlfriend (Natalie Martinez) makes no character logic, though revelations later add a bit of context. A campaign debate, while thematically relevant and well shot, is a baseball-bat-to-the-head invocation of current political schisms. And there is a scene where Taggart quite literally digs a full-color diagram of the villain’s dastardly scheme out of a trash bin.
When we first meet him, Billy Taggart is standing over the body of the young Hispanic man he’s just shot through the head under sinister but unclear circumstances. We learn he is a police officer, and the shooting has lead to an investigation and a trial. Protests are staged outside the New York City courthouse, as the case awakens fault lines of race and power. Taggart is acquitted of wrongdoing, but the steely-eyed police commissioner (Jeffrey Wright) brings Mayor Hostetler (Russell Crowe) word that inconvenient evidence has surfaced. The newly-freed Taggart is brought into Hostetler’s office, congratulated as a hero, and then regretfully booted off the force. The evidence, whatever it is, is buried. Years pass.
Taggart is now a private detective, with a business on the financial rocks. After a fun scene in which he and his ferociously loyal assistant Katy (Alona Tal) shake down customers for payment owed, Billy is once again called into the mayor’s office. Hostetler has an offer: For $50,000, Billy is to find out who Hostetler’s wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is sleeping with.
Needless to say, all is not as it appears, and Billy’s investigation rapidly expands. There is Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper), the idealistic liberal threatening to boot Hostetler from office in an election just days away. There’s the real estate mogul (Griffin Dunne) looking to buy up the public housing project Billy used to patrol – Hostetler insists the current residents will not be removed, but everyone thinks the deal is dirty even if they can’t say why.
Then there is a murder, and the commissioner fingers Taggart as a possible accessory. And all of this will eventually circle back to just what that buried evidence was.
What’s interesting is the way Broken City plays as a parable of American conservatism reckoning with its own sins. Taggart is a conservative everyman – uncomfortable around the cultural upper class, wedded to traditional gender norms, rough-hewn, and simple. He’s loyal to Hostetler, at least initially, and his trial calls up shades of white resentment against minorities who question the needs of law and order. Hostetler’s glittering wife, presumably unfaithful, stumps for gay rights causes, and the liberal Valliant is an oily ivy-league alien. In short, the movie begins rooted in right-wing sympathies and assumptions.
By the conclusion, they have all been inverted. In Broken City’s most quietly moving scene, Taggart sits in a car with a gay man who recounts his feelings for the lover he’s just lost. You can sense the gears turning in Taggart’s head, as the demands of common human decency brook no respect for his cultural comfort zones. The final scene suggests the “liberal elite” is at least trying to do the right thing, which is more than can be said for the other side, and that whatever its intentions were, it’s time for conservatism to own up to the damage it’s caused.
Some of the performances here have weight. Crowe chews the scenery like it’s raw meat, leaping fearlessly between Hostetler’s well-honed political charm and his creepy, misogynistic rants. (But what’s with New York City’s mayor sporting a Boston accent?) The gently platonic understanding between Billy and Katy is touching, Pepper does well portraying a man who is broken but honest, and Kyle Chandler shows up as the righteous class warrior guiding Valliant’s campaign.
The problem is that Wahlberg, as much as I admire his willingness to produce this film, is never more than merely sufficient. At least one of his line readings is worthy of MST3K ribbing. Ryan Gosling or Edward Norton could’ve elevated this material a good deal further. Which is a problem, as Taggart is the moral core of the film, thereby leaving the rest of the production a bit unmoored.
The direction by Allen Hughes (of the Hughes Brothers fame) shows craft and creativity at times. But he’s working with a script that’s several drafts short of polished, and it feels like he’s juggling too many balls at once. There are good individual pieces to Broken City, but they don’t fit back together all that well.