With plot holes the size of Manhattan pot holes and a by-the-numbers format for story and character, the thriller “Broken City,” starring Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe and Catherine Zeta-Jones, is remarkable only for its pedigree.
Its press notes allege — but I could not confirm — that Brian Tucker’s screenplay once resided on the industry’s famous Black List. This is a list kept by development execs going back to 2005 of their favorite unproduced screenplays.
Once a private list among industry folk, it was discovered by film reporters, much discussed since in print and online especially on slow news days and now even has its own web site. If “Broken City” did make the list, then standards among the D (as in development) gang have fallen.
Make no mistake: While the director is well-known — Allen Hughes, working for the first time without his twin brother, Albert — this is a written film. The movie contains carefully choreographed scenes and characters that revolve around crime and corruption in New York City (portrayed here as a politically broken city with rampant political chicanery).
In other words, this thriller relies heavily on plot for its “thrills.” Revealing most of the inconsistencies and implausibilities involve plot spoilers so you can either take my word for it or see a movie that you might enjoy better as home entertainment since “Broken City” does give off a kind of B-movie vibe.
Once you get past a miscast Russell Crowe as the mayor of the city, you still must swallow that on the eve of an election he would align himself on a notorious rape-and-pillage developer in a wholesale land grab of a public-housing project and that another candidate would fearfully hide his homosexuality as if this were the bad old days of Otto Preminger’s “Advise & Consent.”
A prologue seven years before all too blatantly reveals a tenuous yet corrupt connection between Billy Taggart (Wahlberg), a cop who lost his job over the shooting of a suspect, and Mayor Hostetler (Crowe), who goes out of his way to protect the man.
Out of the blue, the mayor in present day calls in Billy, now a lowly private dick scraping to get by. He wants BIlly to shadow his wife, Cathleen (Zeta-Jones), who he suspects is having an affair.
This in itself is hugely suspicious — really, the mayor’s wife fooling around in a town where the media is more dangerous than the mob? But Billy asks no questions.
You might notice he’s not very good at tailing his quarry either. Never mind, she all but leads him by the nose to a rather strange potential boyfriend, Paul Andrews (Kyle Chandler), the campaign manager of the wealthy politician (Barry Pepper) currently running against Hostetler.
Again our Billy isn’t one to question the likelihood of such as affair. He just snaps photos that don’t really prove much of anything other than the two know each other. Don’t you just love a non-thinking hero?
Whether or not you see the script’s other twists and turns coming, they don’t hold up to much scrutiny. More troubling though is how one-note all the characters are.
As played by Crowe, Holstetler wouldn’t get elected sanitation chief. He reeks of corruption. Crowe, who can be a fine actor in the right role, looks like he knows this one isn’t for the ages so he mugs and prowls and plays actorish games to amuse himself.
Nevertheless, Wahlberg has increasing taken possession of the movies he chooses to star in so one is beginning to see what he likes to play: Guys who aren’t too bright and nearly always reactive.
His Billy is played for a fool for most of the film but is still the hero. He is looking for redemption but realizes he must find it in the most unusual way. Meanwhile, Zeta-Jones lurks diaphanously on the story’s periphery, the bitter trophy wife of a political shark.
Tucker’s strategy is to smear all his characters with a taint of corruption; he turns New York into a city so broken that no character is without moral culpability. It would be more impressive if he created ambiguity within this corruption — a lesser evil over a greater evil, say, or political expedience over political inertia.
What I liked most about Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is that in doing the right thing, several people including the sainted Lincoln had to bend a few rules. That’s the way of the world. But in “Broken City” everyone is black — not gray, not off-white, just black.
Billy’s shooting of that civilian years ago wasn’t so innocent. (Did you ever think is was?) A slippery police commissioner (Jeffrey Wright) who doubts Billy and despises the mayor has acquired his position, power and wealth with apparent shadiness (which the movie never explains).
The opposition candidate is so determined to hide his sexual preferences that he is willing to let a boyfriend die. And so it goes.
But this sets up a pattern that is not only predictable but leaves a viewer without a moral high ground. There’s no one to empathize with here.
There is a curious triangle in Billy’s life, with his girlfriend (Natalie Martinez) and the Girl Friday (Alona Tal) at the office, that the movie never bothers to resolve. The girlfriend simply disappears halfway through the movie, leaving you to wonder where the hell Billy sleeps at night — one of those minor plot holes.
(To maintain a noir mood, the movie takes place mostly at night or in the darkest recesses of NYC, yet no one is ever shown going home to bed. Talk about a city that never sleeps.)
Hughes perhaps gets a bit antsy with the movie’s constant and static chatter so he moves his camera around, circling and prowling as if in imitation of Crowe. In this way he relies much more an mise-en-scène than montage in his presentation of this moody, down-and-out NYC.
The ending is surprisingly uninvolving. New York City gets to choose between a crook and a coward for its mayor. Billy goes back to his alcoholic ways. The girlfriend has fled. And a corrupt police commissioner appears to have the upper hand.
I’d hate to see what a downer ending would look like.
Opens: January 18, 2013 (20th Century Fox)
Production companies: Regency Enterprises and Emmett/Furla Films present, in association with Black Bear Pictures, a New Regency and Emmett/Furla Films production, a Closest to the Hole Productions and Leverage Communications production in association with Envision Entertainment and 1984 Private Defense Contractors
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Barry Pepper, Kyle Chandler, Natalie Martinez, Jeffrey Wright
Director: Allen Hughes
Screenwriter: Brian Tucker
Producers: Allen Hughes, Randall Emmett, Stephen Levinson, Mark Wahlberg, Arnon Milchan, Teddy Schwarzman, Remington Chase
Executive producers: George Furla, Stepan Martirosyan, William S. Beasley, Jeff Rice, Scott Lambert, Brandt Anderson, Brian Tucker, Adi Shankar, Spencer Silna, Mr. Mudd
Director of photography: Ben Seresin
Production designer: Tom Duffield
Music: Atticus Ross, Claudia Sarne, Leopold Ross
Costume designer: Betsy Heimann
Editor: Cindy Mollo
R rating, 109 minutes