Sometimes films can be pretty accurately summed up in a word, and in Broken City’s case that word would be ‘workmanlike’. It is competently put together (Allen Hughes, one half of the Hughes brothers, is behind the camera), competently played (by good actors like Mark Wahlberg and Russell Crowe) and competently scored (Atticus Ross, who worked with the Hughes brothers on Book of Eli, and recently joined up with Trent Reznor for The Social Network, contributed to the soundtrack), but rarely does much to stand out.
We’re introduced to Hughes’ grimy vision of New York City in flashback, as Billy Taggart (Wahlberg) stands with a pistol in his hand in Boston Village, a fictional housing estate in the city. As the sirens draw near, he pulls his police badge out of his jacket. We then see him on trial, accused of the murder of a young man. Something unspoken appears to be in the air, but the film then takes us forward seven years, and we rejoin Billy in his new line of work as a private investigator. When the mayor (Russell Crowe) hires him to spy on his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Billy is dragged into something bigger than suspicions of adultery.
For long periods the film captures and holds the imagination, even if it rarely manages to establish a genuine sense of tension or danger. The plot moves smoothly enough, driven by Billy’s search for answers, but as these are revealed, there’s a sense that the film could’ve been so much more interesting than it is. Wahlberg is fine in the lead role, even if he isn’t stretched, and the same can be said for Crowe. As the city’s mayor, he’s evidently having fun being sleazy and untrustworthy, and there is a note of interest in the political back and forth between him and rival politician Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper), even if the politicking is based around mostly fictional intrigue.
It’s difficult to say precisely why the revelations don’t hit the way they might have done. The script, perhaps, is the issue. Like the direction and acting, it’s decent but not much more, and there are few memorable exchanges. For a film that’s light on action and heavy on talking, the script really needs to grab its audience. The recent adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, for instance, generated its tension and intrigue from fusty men talking in rooms, and from Tomas Alfredson’s precise direction – Broken City lacks the same feeling of identity. On a couple of occasions I found myself querying Billy’s odd habit of referring to Crowe’s character simply as ‘Mayor’. If the script had had me gripped, it’s unlikely I would’ve registered it. Similarly, the way Hughes’ camera dances Malick-style around his actors in a couple of key scenes is confusing – why take the focus away from the acting? It seems an odd decision from an experienced director.
There’s a central character revelation that takes place near the end of the film that is commendable in one way, but which also stifles its own potential by arriving so late in the day, and in a way that sums up the film. It has ideas and, in places, verve, but it can’t help but feel like a pretty standard thriller with some big names rather erroneously attached. That those big names can’t lift it beyond workmanlike suggests the material isn’t quite strong enough.