Brian Tucker's "Broken City" screenplay is packed with plot twists, complex sentences and the kind of innuendo that make it seem as if the movie will be a smarter-than-most thriller from the first exchanges. All the talking is no doubt why "Broken City" landed on the coveted Black List of the best unproduced scripts a few years ago.
Now it's been filmed with a beefy cast led by Mark Wahlberg as Billy Taggart, a broken cop turned P.I. Russell Crowe is cagey Mayor Nicolas Hostetler, the man who brought him down. Jeffrey Wright as Police Commissioner Fairbanks watches it all with a jaundiced eye.
The hook in "Broken City," set in a modern-day New York where political corruption and police intrigue pile up like garbage during a strike, is that nothing is what it seems. The movie proves to be a bait-and-switch of a different sort.
Director Allen Hughes, who usually does gritty city quite well, has given "Broken City" the look of a noir and the mayor a Prince Valiant 'do, which along with the quandaries — a real estate scam, a reelection campaign and a cheating wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) — keep the pot boiling. But it also makes the film feel dated, as if everything might play better if this were the 1950s or better still the 1920s. Real-life corruption and betrayals have gotten so much more byzantine, in a new-age, techno-centric kind of way.
Though the film starts with Billy's downfall — a questionable shooting with Billy literally holding a smoking gun — it quickly shifts into his redemption phase. The story picks up a few years into it, with the former cop trying to do the right thing in a seedy business.
The bulk of his private-eyeing entails snapping compromising shots of adulterous wives. Still, he's got his integrity, his sobriety, a feisty young office manager (Alona Tal) and a beautiful girlfriend (Natalie Martinez). But he's going bankrupt all the same. An unexpected call from his old nemesis, the mayor, comes with the promise of a $50,000 payment for catching his wife in the act. It is hard to refuse, though his gut tells him he should.
Watching everything unfold, I was reminded of Gene Hackman's surveillance guy in "The Conversation" and William Hurt's toyed-with lover in "Body Heat," both brilliant executions of the rat-in-the-maze game that "Broken" purports to be. Unlike those earlier brain teases — so intense it's hard to breathe — Hughes has allowed the high wire everyone is walking to go slack. All the danger that characterized his groundbreaking 1993 cult hit "Menace II Society," written and directed with twin brother Albert, is missing. As a result, the double crosses lack punch, the threats sound empty. Plot twists that should be kept under wraps are telegraphed so far ahead of time that little about "Broken City" comes as a surprise.
In part, the problem lies in whose story this really is — Billy's or the mayor's. Since no one seems willing to make the call, the movie keeps shifting between the two — sometimes connecting the dots between them, sometimes not. It's anyone's game.
The director lets the dreary, dirty business of political ambition drone on — there is almost as much campaign footage on screen as we saw last year — although Crowe does pull off a political debate against his opponent, Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper), quite handily. The actor is stinging enough and winning enough in that particular face-off that it's hard not to hope that he will find a role he can really sink his teeth into before too much longer. Maybe Crowe needs to be a hero rather than a villain — it's where he has done his best work, whether the Oscar win for "Gladiator" or the way he rose to the cerebral challenge of "A Beautiful Mind."
The film presents a different set of issues for Wahlberg. He is one of those actors so easy to like in nearly everything he does that "Broken" comes as a rare disappointment. Wahlberg's comeback boxer in "The Fighter" had such vulnerability and heart you were in his corner from the first frame. His cop in "The Departed" was so completely torn up by the moral dilemmas, you ached along with him. He even found a way to make the bond between his slacker guy and a potty-mouth plush toy in "Ted" endearing and believable.
But Billy confounds him. The film's moral turning point comes with Billy's discovery that something about his gig for the mayor doesn't smell right. It begins to haunt him, pulling up memories of his own downfall. But all the snares set along the way stop making sense. The conflict between Billy and his girlfriend, a promising indie actress, feels particularly forced, and the tailspin that follows, a complete fraud.
Walhberg's Billy isn't so much bad as just not there — nothing clicks, nothing resonates, everything's broken.