by Tony Dayoub
Private detective Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) is a brittle shell encasing a multitude of failings. Jealous, obsessive and paranoid, he tells his soon to be ex-wife Natalie (Natalie Martinez), an actress on the verge of overnight success, that she can't fool him. "I'm a detective. You couldn't if you tried." So, into the mix that makes up Taggart, you can also add a certain measure of arrogance characteristic of some who "uphold" the law. Taggart's hubris is a strong indicator that he is headed for a big fall. With such a perfect noir set-up, why then does Broken City feel so prosaic?
Directed by Allen Hughes, one half of the Hughes Brothers (Menace II Society), Broken City is evocative of Sidney Lumet's multi-layered New York crime and corruption thrillers, like Serpico and Q&A. The movie revolves around a building project called Bolton Village, the flash-point in ex-cop Taggart's life. There he once took down (some say executed) a teenage rapist whose final victim was Natalie's sister, a disturbing catalyst for Taggart's relationship to his wife. Bolton Village also represents a significant payout for New York's current mayor, oily fat cat Nick Hostetler (Russell Crowe). But no one can prove Hostetler's plan: sell it to a real estate group with designs on razing it and filling up its prime real estate with luxury skyscrapers. Complicating things further, Hostetler is up for re-election, and he's losing in the polls to bright up-and-comer, Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper)—a name that's further proof of the film's lack of subtlety. Hostetler hires Taggart for what the private eye thinks is a simple adultery case—tail Mrs. Hostetler (Catherine Zeta-Jones, doing her best Jackie O) as she meets clandestinely with someone who turns out to be Valliant's campaign manager Paul Andrews (Kyle Chandler)—and...
Well, as you see, the plot of Broken City is practically labyrinthine. But Hughes manages to keep the convoluted story quite focused, framing everything from Taggart's dim perspective in order to give the audience just enough information to know that most of this is way over the cavalier detective's head. It's not that Taggart isn't on to the fact that he's being manipulated. A brilliantly shot conversation early in the film has an aspect of cat-and-mouse because Andrews unwittingly strikes up the conversation with Taggart, the very private dick who's following him. But the scene is also key in demonstrating that the disillusioned Taggart isn't sure whether he's playing on the right team. It's the first time he is forced to think of how Hostetler may be using him and the system in order to rip off the poorest of New York's residents in order to come out on top.
This growing self-awareness and his refusal to heed his instincts are the first indications that Taggart has a self-destructive streak five-lanes wide, stemming from the incident in Bolton Village that he probably shouldn't have been exonerated for. He soon finds his downward spiral in life accelerating—losing his wife, falling off the wagon—all indirectly a result from the pivotal shooting which has vexed him for years. When he realizes Hostetler's rapaciousness is directly related to Bolton Village, symbolic of all that has troubled Taggart for so long, it's no surprise that it awakens some need for redemption in the cynical detective.
The problem with Broken City lies in its lack of depth. For all the talent Hughes shows in keeping the heavy plot straight for viewers and in matching Lumet's style—New York is virtually its own character in this deep ensemble—he never really elaborates on the questions brought up by his examination of corruption and cover-up. It's almost as if Hughes is only sketching out the shape of a Lumet film in the manner one would when paying homage to a genre. It's too bad he never fills in the drawing to give it any sort of substance. Broken City has all of the elements to be an above average thriller if it weren't so concerned with slavishly aping its predecessors.
Broken City opens this Friday.