Cop corruption story’s not all broken, but damaged

Are you dumb or Catholic?” spits Catherine Zeta-Jones, the wife of New York City’s corrupt mayor, at the private investigator her husband has hired to follow her as elections loom. “Both,” he answers. In Broken City, a bombastic character study poorly dressed as a crime drama, Wahlberg plays the private dick in question with both qualities very much in evidence. His Billy Taggart, an ex-policeman turned independent for hire, is not a particularly talented detective: he routinely blows his cover and therefore has to resort to less covert means, which he is far better at than stealth. However, Taggart has a bedrock sense of morality and duty, aggravated by his guilt over the personally-motivated shooting of a young man who got him kicked off the force seven years prior.

Broken City, which Wahlberg also produced, is the kind of mundane yet solidly reliable genre formula we have come to expect from neighbourhood-kid-dun-good Marky Mark – and last year’s Contraband, likewise released in the unpretentious (and wisely unambitious) winter months after the awards season frenzy, was cut from the same cloth. The difference is that Wahlberg has slightly better collaborators this time around. Director Allen Hughes is half of the fraternal filmmaking team who burst on to the scene with, but never quite managed to emulate the promise of, 1993’s Menace II Society. Working alone seems to have given Hughes a little of his lustre back, and his roving, prowling camerawork is at least purposeful and reverent rather than show-offish, as seen in a pivotal meeting between Taggart and Crowe’s well-fed, venal, backslapping mayor, Nicky Hostetler. Hughes also gives New York City a presence, a harrowing malevolence, and as one character puts it: “The only thing better than getting out of that damn city is going back to it.”

The original screenplay by Brian Tucker is peppered with clunky, dusty and highly predictable dialogue that is necessarily but jarringly bolstered by raw material from a decade of New York news headlines. The prologue finds Taggart exonerated from an on-duty shooting through a backroom handshake with Mayor Hostetler and his police commissioner (a surly Wright), while at the centre of the film’s mystery is a pocket-lining land grab deal involving Hostetler’s sale of a public housing project to private hands. That’s just about it in terms of plot, and we are thus forced to wait almost two hours for Wahlberg to fulfil his desire for redemption and for the bad guys in office to get their comeuppance.

The film does at least resist the temptation to fill its gaping holes with gratuitous violence, and aside from a couple of bruising brawls and one brief yet misplaced sequence of bumper cars, gun battles and punch-ups are gratifyingly repressed – a subverted and simmering threat is thus maintained over the bouts of sparring dialogue, reaching a climax in the mayoral debate between populist Hostetler and his anti-corruption campaigning, blue-blooded opponent with whom he is locked in a dead heat. 

Sexual insecurity, machismo and a creeping homophobia are shown to be behind much of the chest-beating, along with expected levels of back-stabbing shenanigans, political power games and one-upmanship. However, there is absolutely nothing new here, and a fog of repetitive redundancy hangs heavily in the air. 

When it comes to edgy tales of political intrigue, TV series are fast encroaching on the big screen’s once manicured lawns, and if this very ordinary thriller is the best that an untended and overgrown Hollywood can offer in riposte, it might as well pack up the lawnmower and go home.

Broken City (11)



Dir: Allen Hughes; US thriller, 2013, 109 mins; Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jeffrey Wright

Premiered May 8

Playing nationwide


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