Film Review: Broken City

Contemporary political crime drama pitting a villainous New York City mayor against the former cop-turned-private investigator he hires (cue hero here) is a familiar entry for the easy-to-please.

Less politics as usual than movie business as usual, Broken City, broken into broad, splashy pieces of easily digestible narrative, visual and character components, does at least provide an easy ride into a cheesy, lazily imagined New York political scandal. If movies are vehicles, this one’s a tour bus into a comic-book city of nasty noir and Hollywood star-gazing. There are potholes aplenty, including a good and bad guy as real as anything found at 42nd Street’s Madame Tussauds. But the scenery (all those glittering skyscrapers) and glossy star presences (Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe, Catherine Zeta-Jones) are nice.

Also problematic is that the film is so yesterday, echoing those noir-ish films from the ’30s and ’40s in which elements of big-city politics at the highest level, pervasive corruption, abuse of power, sex, murder, and the struggle of a relatable good guy bent on justice all converge. (The Glass Key is just one vintage that comes to mind.)

Brian Tucker’s first released screenplay—previously chosen as one of Hollywood’s prestigious Black List of best yet-to-be-produced scripts—gives us the familiar connect-the-dots characters and story. New York Mayor Nicolas Hostetler (Crowe), an oily charmer who suggests a coarser and poorer Donald Trump, needs help finding out with whom his glam-socialite wife Cathleen (Zeta-Jones) is having an affair. The whiskey-swilling Mayor, whose office makes “Mad Men” work caves look like tea parlors, calls upon the streetwise and fallen Billy Taggart (Wahlberg) to do the sleuthing. A former cop and now a Brooklyn private investigator, Taggart had caught the Mayor’s attention some years ago when he got bumped from the force for his zeal and infraction involving the Bolton Village city housing projects. Might a revitalized Bolton Village and the Mayor’s Trump-like developer’s DNA figure in the plot?

Taggart isn’t comfortable with his demeaning assignment, but the Mayor’s money talks. On the gumshoe’s side are trusted assistant Katy (Alona Tal) to help him on the work front and loving girlfriend Natalie (Natalie Martinez), an aspiring actress starring in an indie film, who soon causes problems on the home front because of the sexy role she plays.

Taggart trails the cheating Cathleen to a tryst at the New York Botanical Gardens. There, he discovers her lover is no less than Paul Chandler (Kyle Chandler), the campaign manager for the Mayor’s re-election rival, people’s-choice councilman Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper), whose name is a tip-off to his virtue.

Not helping matters in this confusing cauldron of corruption is Police Commissioner Colin Fairbanks (Jeffrey Wright), long familiar with Taggart from the days the cop was booted. As nasty business here is as rampant as the flu, Fairbanks too has some tricks of his own up his sleeve.

Broken City does have its virtues. It looks smart and has a New York kind of energy. But Crowe, 180 degrees away from anyone’s idea of a New York mayor (New York isn’t Chicago or D.C.), doesn’t quite get his mouth around the accent of his sleazy New Yawk politico. (A little time in a Queens diner might have helped.)

Marking Allen Hughes’ solo directing debut apart from his brother Albert, the film does provide further proof that digital capture continues as delicious capture in the right hands (here it’s Ben Seresin with an Arri Alexa) and that enough gorgeous panoramic exterior overheads of a twinkly Manhattan might persuade all but natives that Broken City is New York City to the bone (well-integrated interiors were mostly Louisiana-lensed).