BROKEN CITY Review

I probably enjoyed Broken City more than I should have. I don't really care though as it is a slickly made political drama that plays like a Lifetime soap with much, much better actors. Departing from his brothers side for the first time in their nearly twenty-year partnership, director Allen Hughes has chosen a script off the 2008 black list which is a list compiled of the so-called "best unproduced scripts in Hollywood". Hughes has also rounded up a very impressive cast as he not only has the white hot Mark Wahlberg in the lead but he also has Russell Crowe playing a dirty mayor, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Barry Pepper, Jeffrey Wright and Kyle Chandler all in supporting roles that make you believe that at one time this was probably seen as a film not only with serious talent, but potential clout. How it ended up being left to the dumping grounds of January is a mystery as it isn't all that bad and in fact is a rather enjoyable piece of pulp and gritty adult drama. The story does get muddled in parts, some of what happens doesn't seem to exactly fit with other things that happen prior, but the overall affect the film has on you is one of genuine entertainment. It is like those films of yesteryear where you didn't know these people going into the film, you had no idea who they might be or what their motives were but as you get to know them you realize you've seen them before; but instead of adding a layer of familiarity to the film it adds a layer of reality. Granted, Broken City is set in the typical big city setting of New York and though I had somewhat higher expectations for the writing as I knew the status of the script I can't argue with the fact I was intrigued the entire time and the performances lend a helping hand that boost this film even further into the category of a solid thriller.

Russell Crowe, Jeffrey Wright, and Mark Wahlberg in Broken City.
Opening with a nicely stylized shot of Wahlberg as he either commits or defends himself with the decision that his characters future will hinge on, the film immediately draws us into its world of a city ripe with corrupt politicians and injustice. The film essentially chronicles the road of Wahlberg's Billy Taggart as he reaches for redemption after he becomes wrapped up in a game of lies and deception between mayor Hostetler (Crowe) and his wife Cathleen (Zeta-Jones) who he believes is cheating on him in the wake of an upcoming election. Naturally these at first appealing plot lines go much deeper than we might at first suspect. Only adding to the complex storyline is the opposing mayor (Pepper) and his campaign manager (Chandler) as well as the commissioner (Wright) who genuinely seem to want to do what is best for the city rather than having a personal agenda as every other person in the film does. There is much to be left to the imagination as first time screenwriter Brian Tucker piles on the twists and turns like nobodys business and seems unable himself to keep up with where everything leads and who exactly is on what side of things. So much so that we are still unsure as the film comes to a close that this is actually going to be the end or if another twist might come around the corner to turn the whole thing on its head. There are subplots like Taggart's love interest which has an unnecessary bout with wanting to be an actress and then is excommunicated from the film halfway through to make room for another woman that feels like it should have been the love interest all along so it is allowed to not exactly come to fruition, but hinted at nonetheless.

What is most interesting about the film though is what so many credible actors saw in the material that initially pulled them into the project. Sure, character driven pieces are a rarity in big studio films these days, but there is nothing here that really allows the film to stand above the rest or bring it above mediocrity. At its core is the character of Taggert and Wahlberg plays the tough, streetwise guy with his usual charisma that oozes cool, but what adds more to the character is that he isn't just the streetsmart tough guy but he is a man with integrity, a genuinely good guy who wants to be seen as such. The downfall of the character is that trying to be this good guy is what gets him in the most trouble. This flawed hero is what pulled me into the story and that charisma Wahlberg inherently brings to the role is what allowed me to stick with it. Still, even with this intriguing central character everything that is going on around him ultimately reduces the movie back to those network dramas that we could watch from the comfort of our couch any day of the week. That doesn't make it a bad film, it just makes it very average and not as smart or as satisfying as it needs to be to qualify for a movie-going experience. The supporting characters, while embodied by a wonderful cast, are left as nothing more than sketches when compared to the dimensions that Taggart has. They each fit so easily into a type that it is impossible to see them as anything more than tools of the storyteller to move the plot along rather than actual people who we could understand flying off the rails and doing something unexpected. That is not to say that characters shouldn't be the tools of a screenwriter, but a skilled screenwriter should not make that fact as obvious as Tucker has done here.

Catherine Zeta-Jones and Russell Crowe play a political power couple in Allen Hughes latest.
And while it is clear Broken City could have been so much more we can't be too upset with the film as it offers somewhat of a different entree than most films are offering at the moment, and in January especially. Usually a film that comes out in the first months of the year after all the award season contenders are anything but character driven films and no matter how much the film fails in other aspects in succeeds in being a movie about a man whose character is put to the test and has to choose between right and wrong while dealing with everything that is going on in his life. There are hints of this great, gritty drama and you can see the determination in Wahlberg's eyes as he wants the film to not be considered just another action/cop drama genre picture but something more akin to those 70's movies that were more focused on the emotional ups and downs and how that directed the story rather than the story directing them. I made that same point just a moment ago, but it is a relevant issue with the movie and one of its biggest flaws that holds it back from being that something more, that film that is closer to the level of something like Chinatown rather than what this end result has produced. I will say though, that if we could just sit and watch Crowe and Wahlberg go at it as these characters all day I would be just fine with that. The tense, grizzly filled dialogue scenes between these two are a real highlight and worth the price of admission alone. The pedigree of the cast and the flavor of the story may have you expecting a little more it is hard not to admit how much you enjoy yourself as you get wrapped up in the drama Broken City lays out for you. It may not be memorable, but it was fun while it lasted.