Mark Wahlberg has lately proved himself a shrewd judge of material, as both actor and producer. Perhaps he saw Broken City, for which he wears both hats, as a chance to transpose something of (a contemporary version of) the political intrigue and corruption found in his HBO series Boardwalk Empire to the big screen. Unfortunately, this private detective yarn is left flailing in a sea of clichés and undernourished plotting, both in terms of scope of Brian Tucker’s screenplay and the crude machinations of his antagonists.
Wahlberg’s resurgence over the past few years has partially resulted from sticking to the kind of parts that suit him best. So we haven’t seen a repeat of his ill-advised turns in supernatural/fantasy fodder (The Happening, Max Payne, The Lovely Bones), where his what-you-see-is-what-you-get persona proved ill-fitting with the heightened milieu. Instead, he has capitalised on his relatability as a blue-collar guy and a surprisingly skilled deadpan comedian. His bread-and-butter thrillers may not past muster in the company of his Oscar-nominated turn in The Departed, but they deliver on the level of solid, reliable crowd-pleasers. Wahlberg is usually cast as an essentially good guy dealing with a troublesome past. That’s fine in a pacy heist thriller (Contraband) or an action-packed conspiracy yarn (Shooter). Put that type, particularly when he’s in the most fanciful of movie professions (the private detective), in the corridors of power and you really need to bring something more to the table.
There’s a vague acknowledgement that ex-cop Billy Taggart (Wahlberg)’s profession is anachronistic (“Do private eyes still exist?”), but it’s insufficient to counterbalance the very retro intrigue in which he finds himself entangled. Taggart was persuaded to leave the force quietly seven years earlier, following his trial for shooting a murderer-rapist; New York Mayor (this may be New York, but it could be any-movie city USA) Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe) buried evidence against Taggart to guarantee a self-defence verdict, but informed him that he will could on his services again. When he does, it’s because he believes that his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is having an affair and he wants Taggart to procure evidence. The Mayor’s re-election campaign is coming up, and the rather straightforward trail of clues leads Taggart to Paul Andrews (Kyle Chandler). Andrews is the campaign manager for Hostetler’s opponent Jack Valiant (Barry Pepper). Taggart soon learns that the Mayor hasn’t been exactly transparent with his reasons for engaging his services.
There are no half-measures with storylines of this ilk; if the construction is insufficiently intricate, and the world lacks a believably murky underbelly, it will prove impossible to sell the conceit. And that’s the problem here. Tucker is probably looking to greats such as Chinatown for his cues on rampant profligacy but ends up making City Hall look like a hard-hitting dissection of the mayoral office. There just aren’t the necessary layers of subterfuge to make the dodgy dealing convincing. And, to locate his information, Taggart has the easiest ride of any detective ever; he just happens to find a box full of evidence next to a dumpster. Lucky, eh? Later, we discover that his quarry has helpfully put his name plain-as-day to the company’s articles of association; this company being the one behind a huge development project.
Tucker’s script has the feel of a first draft, one where characters have affairs to enable plot twists rather than because their behaviour is remotely believable. When you hear, several times, how Taggart has quit drinking it is tiresomely inevitable that he will fall of the wagon (that he does so with such unintentional hilarity is a surprise, though). The subplot involving his girlfriend’s (Natalie Martinez) appearance in a movie is rather silly and overwrought. Perhaps the makers realised this as she disappears halfway through, never to return.
The moral posturing of the film is curiously indistinct also. Political corruption and big business duplicity is bad, obviously, but the implication is that Taggart’s initial action, even if it was outside the law, was good. He took down one of the scum, Dirty Harry-style, and there is no suggestion that he is contrite when he shows willingness to face the music for what he has done. Indeed, the repeated validation of his action by the family of the victim reinforces the Old Testament judgement meted out by Taggart (Wahlberg, as a Christian, may be endorsing this type of behaviour; who knows?)
That’s about the extent of how provocative this material is, however. Otherwise, it’s heavy-handed every step of the way. Director Allen Hughes, in his first solo effort away from brother Albert, furnishes the visuals with the kind of polish you’d expect, but he also retains a lazy eye for story. He has filled the cast out nicely, but the script limitations ensure this feels like a city with only seven or eight people living in it.
Russell Crowe, Jor-El aside, has made surprisingly little of his supporting turns, and this is no exception. He isn’t the kind of actor who comes on and does a larger-than-life turn, overpowering the picture, like a Hoffman or a Spacey. Ironically, given his early promise in The Insider, he isn’t much of a chameleon either. Here he plasters himself in fake tan and bad hair, but furnishing his character with a distinctive look doesn’t make him any more compelling. Crowe hams it up, but in a rather disinterested manner. For what it’s worth, he and Wahlberg do have reasonable chemistry; it just isn’t in support of anything worthwhile. Across the board, however, there’s a sense that the performers are trying to play big to make up for the spaces between their dialogue and their wafer-thin characters. Zeta-Jones, Pepper, Chandler, Griffin Dunne are all fine, but they’re playing comic strip parts. Jeffrey Wright’s police captain, meanwhile, is plain ridiculous, both on the page and in Wright’s over-exerting performance.
Tucker’s script was part of 2008’s black list of best-unproduced screenplays, which is fairly clear indication that unwarranted hype can open doors. The type of film Wahlberg and Hughes are angling for is commendable (a mainstream thriller with some substance) but the political world it occupies is shallow in conception and uninspired in content.