Broken City is no Chinatown. It takes many of the 1974 Polanski classic’s basic elements – both protagonists are private eyes who used to be cops and specialize in extramarital affairs. Both get involved in schemes to bilk to poor schlubs of a major city (both schemes being land deals, no less). Both have troubled pasts, get in over their head, and see a case through when they’d be better off keeping their eyes shut. Both have confrontations with the villains that end with them being told that they may know what they’re doing but don’t. Only Chinatown did it really, really well and has what is widely recognized as one of the best screenplays of all time.
Broken City, to put it mildly, doesn’t. Despite being among the Hollywood “blacklist” of the purportedly best yet unproduced scripts, it’s an immensely plodding and dull story whose “twists” are so predictable, that one can easily lay out the movie’s entire course simply from the trailer.
Wahlberg plays Billy Taggart, the P.I. who’s hired by the mayor of New York City (Russell Crowe) to discover whom his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is schtupping. Naturally, Wahlberg uncovers some sordid details about both the mayor as well as his political rival (Barry Pepper). Someone tips the ruckus, some people get whacked, and Taggart all but ignores it to struggle with his own personal issues including an actor girlfriend (Natalie Martinez) and a history of possible alcoholism.
What’s the major flaw? How about the dialogue? This is the kind of film where the characters are constantly referring to the other’s occupation, relationship status, and kind of sandwich they had for lunch. Russell Crowe first identifies himself as the mayor: “As the mayor, I’d like you to…”; Wahlberg’s actress girlfriend identifies herself as an actress girlfriend: “I’m your girlfriend. And I’m an actress”; the chief of police is always happy to remind people that he’s the chief of police: “Hi, criminal! As the Chief of Police for New York City, I must remind you that stealing a big sandwich is wrong!” Aside from that, there’s not a single line of memorable dialogue.
Or perhaps it’s the look, which seems ripped straight from The Dark Knight, with an overabundance of drab blues for exteriors, sepia-soaked interiors, and a camera that tends to wander whenever it gets bored, which is often.
Maybe it’s the characters, who are so empty, they may as well walk through each other. Taggart’s apparent history with alcohol abuse is made out to be a big deal yet it has no payoff at all, save as an indication that he’s angry with his girlfriend, which in itself is a storyline that equally goes nowhere. There’s the hint of an interesting dynamic with his secretary (Alona Tal), but it doesn’t go beyond menial bickering and two quick bits of teamwork.
Crowe is your stereotypically oily Republican; Pepper your crusading Democrat; Zeta-Jones your average unhappy housewife. This is an amazing cast, and what do they do? Amble about making veiled threats and talking endlessly about how how dangerous the situation is, between, of course, bouts of reminding us whom they are.
Must it be the story? For the first hour and ten minutes, nothing happens. Wahlberg’s hired to take pictures. He follows the mayor’s wife, follows another guy, takes the pictures, then there’s a half hour about his girlfriend’s indie film. Then he goes to her parents’ house. Then something you were completely expecting to happen happens. Then there’s the mayoral debate (which, to be fair, is actually a pretty good scene), then there’s a lead. Then he goes…
What about the fact that you already know who the bad guy is and what he’s doing? If your IQ is slightly higher than a big sandwich, you can pretty much figure everything out in the first five minutes. What’s left is following Wahlberg around while he does essentially everything but solve the case – a case you already know the solution to and spend the bulk of the movie just waiting for him to catch up.
How he does it isn’t interesting, what he does when he isn’t doing it isn’t interesting; and even when the film finally gets around to some action it should, by the simple principles of scarcity, should be interesting but isn’t. And the ending is as nonsensical, unsatisfying, and bland as the subplots.
Which is it? All of them. The shell of a story, the bland dialogue, the lifeless characters, the ponderous subplots, the plebian look. Writer Brian Tucker and director Allen Hughes copy the most superficial elements of a thriller and end up with no thrills, as if they brought the cement, trowel, and bricks and expected the wall to assemble itself. No wonder this city is broken.