Broken City is in serious need of repair.
And with all the talent involved, it's all the more disappointing. Allen Hughes directs, aiming for a gritty political thriller. But aiming is not achieving. Few, if any, of the characters are believable and the twists the story takes are telegraphed well beforehand, or fairly guessable. Much of the plot gets bogged down with excess exposition.
Mark Wahlberg plays a role that feels exceedingly familiar - both for him and for this kind of predictable saga of corruption. He's Billy Taggart, a zealous but boozy New York City cop who takes the law into his own hands- and gets away with murder. He's quietly booted off the force, but not imprisoned. He's lauded as a hero by the sleazy mayor (Russell Crowe), then kicked out of the department by Police Commissioner Fairbanks (Jeffrey Wright). We knew in seconds that Crowe's Mayor Hostetler is slimy. It's evident at first sight, with his aura of power-grabbing menace, bad haircut and fake tan (which grows darker over the movie's course, particularly during a mayoral campaign debate).
The story mostly takes place seven years after Taggart's firing. Now a struggling private eye, he has sobered up and coupled with Natalie (Natalie Martinez). Taggart has avenged the rape and death of her sister, and their relationship hinges on that. Natalie is an actress making her first indie film and Taggart is not supportive, for no particular reason. He then grows ridiculously jealous watching her in a love scene with a co-star, in a subplot that goes nowhere.
The bigger story focuses on the venal mayor and his elegant wife Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The mayor hires Taggart to spy on her because he says she's cheating on him. He offers Taggart a tidy sum. Along the way we see a lot of banal bantering between Taggart and his youthful assistant Katy (Alona Tal). And then there are the dull clashes of Mayor Hostetler and his idealistic challenger, councilman Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper). Also key to the story are a real estate developer and top campaign contributor (Griffin Dunne) and Valliant's campaign manager (Kyle Chandler).
The dialogue is often cliched, which undercuts the sense of treachery the film tries to establish. Director Hughes posits too many unlikely scenarios and far-fetched coincidences for this tale to work. For instance, at the very moment Taggart arrives at a company he suspects of corruption, he sees workers throwing trash bags of evidence in a garbage bin. And a key incriminating contract mystifyingly is never shredded, unlike all the other documents that are being tossed out.
We're meant to root for Taggart as he stands up to a corrupt system. But after he falls off the wagon and behaves like a fool it's hard to really care as he is railroaded, framed, double-crossed and more.
Wahlberg had one of his best screen roles last year with Seth MacFarlane's rowdy comedy Ted. He has great comic timing and perhaps should focus his energies on more humorous parts. His flawed-cop roles are played out. He's far more compelling when riffing with a potty-mouthed teddy bear than tangling with a corrupt mayor.
Sure, Ted and Broken City are cinematic apples and oranges, but freshness is key in all genres. A cynical thriller about governmental corruption should not make cynics of its audience.