The biggest crime in the new Mark Wahlberg political crime drama BROKEN CITY is that it's trying to pack too much story into one two-hour movie. It's rare that I say this about any film, but there's so much going on in this New York City tale of corrupt cops, politicians and city contractors that I almost wish the film had been given a little more room to open up and breathe. Add to that all of the character flaws of Wahlberg's Billy Taggart (possible murderer, substance abuse, jealous husband), and you have what amounts to a film so stuffed with plot points that it's about ready to burst. There are worse things than having too much of a good thing, but that's not exactly the case with BROKEN CITY.
Years ago, Taggart was a cop that shot a man. He claims the man had a gun; others say the victim did not. And while the claims against Taggart are dismissed, that doesn't stop his boss (Jeffrey Wright) from kicking him off the force. Just before that happens, Mayor Hostetler (Russell Crowe) makes it clear that he thinks Taggart is a hero and promises to call on him somewhere down the line. Years later, Taggart is a struggling private investigator, married to an actress (Natalie Martinez), and working with a plucky assistant (Alona Tal), who is clearly the better match for him, although they never act on it. And then the call from the mayor's office comes and Taggart is offered $50,000 to spy on the mayor's wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones), whom the mayor believes is cheating on him.
The mayor is running for re-election against a young upstart named Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper), and if you guessed that what the mayor's wife is up to might be tied to the looming election, you'd be right. Right as the details of dirty dealing on the mayor's are beginning to unfold, Taggart must attend the premiere of his wife's first starring role in an independent film. We find out that he went into a alcohol-fueled tailspin after losing his job, and he's be clean and sober for several years in large part to keep the affections of his wife. But seeing her on screen in a sex scene with another man, combined with the mounting pressures of this new case, drive him right into pounding shots at a bar where his wife and her fellow cast mates are celebrating their film. The scene gets ugly fast as Billy's latent jealousy springs to the forefront.
I'm not exactly sure why this aspect of the story was especially necessary, and weirdly enough when the wife character leaves the film at this point, she never returns. It feels like a huge open door that never gets shut (I'm guessing there's cut footage somewhere that wraps up the plotline, but that would have extended the film for the wrong reasons.) Truly the most interesting relationship in the film is between Taggart and assistant Katy. I've only seen Tal in one film before, the Mexican horror film UNDOCUMENTED, but what she's doing here is much different. She's pretty, but that isn't her greatest strength. She goes toe to toe with both Taggart about letting clients pay after the case is done, and she isn't afraid to rip a deadbeat client a new one if necessary.
But the key scenes in BROKEN CITY are between Crowe and Wahlberg. If memory serves, there are about four of them in total, and I'm pretty sure Crowe is drinking in all of them. He's got a bad haircut, a disturbing spray-on tan (I assume), and he's the crown prince of slick politicians. Their scenes are a little scattershot, but I actually liked that they weren't totally polished. These are two aggressive actors bouncing each other's style off one another, and it's kind of fun and reckless to observe. When the film sticks to the main story of the investigation, it works as a solid drama, with a few quirky touches courtesy of Wahlberg. When he shoots a guy in the back of the leg and then hold up his hands and says, "That was an accident" (when clearly is wasn't), it made me really laugh.
BROKEN CITY has a fell like a lot of the paranoia-fueled political drama from the post-Watergate 1970s, when no one trusted anyone, especially the government and police. But the stakes here don't feel quite as weighty. And despite all of the personal faults that Taggart has on full display, I still don't feel like got to know him or care about whether he got caught for what he did all those years ago.
Director Allen Hughes (who, as half of the Hughes Brothers, directed such great films as MENACE II SOCIETY, DEAD PRESIDENTS, FROM HELL, and BOOK OF ELI) is gifted when it come to putting together a scene and making it look great, but there's something missing from this movie--call it a soul, something for us to actually attach ourselves to. There's enough going on here to just barely recommend BROKEN CITY, but in this time between the nominations and the Academy Awards, movie theaters are flooded with better product. And until you've seen all of those, you can probably skip this one.