Some evenings at the theater, the marquee only has two choices: $200 million action blockbusters and $5,000 found-footage camcorder flicks. If you’re yearning for a simple, mid-sized film with no CGI monsters and at least two famous actors, Broken City offers an R-rated option for fans of crime drama in general and tough-talking guys in particular. It’s a capable primer for anyone who’s never seen a film about political scandal or government corruption, and comfort food for those who can’t get enough of watching little guys taking down big dogs.
Mark Wahlberg is Billy Taggart, a former policeman who lost his badge over a controversial incident involving a homicidal rapist. He now runs his own PI business, though his clients are mostly deadbeats and his photos are amateurish. Russell Crowe is NYC Mayor Nicholas Hostetler, up for yet another reelection and riding high publicity on the sale of the low-income Bolton Village tenement area for a cool four billion bucks, nicely covering the city’s billion-dollar deficit and leaving plenty of surplus to earn him good Election Day will. Hostetler faces challenges on two fronts: his election opponent, smarmy upper-crust councilman Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper, who turns from stiff-upper-lip to unsettling devastation when things go wrong for him); and his wife Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones, an Oscar-winning placeholder), who may be cheating on him. Or he may be paranoid. Or evil.
Hostetler offers Taggart $50,000 to follow his wife and report on what she’s doing behind his back. What appears upfront to be an open-and-shut adultery case ends up dragging Taggart through a jagged obstacle course of deception, hidden motives, political shenanigans, and sins of the past resurfacing when they’re least expected. The seedy Manhattan cityscape is populated with plenty of suspicious types, suspects as well as simple red herrings. Jeffrey Wright (the CIA man from Daniel Craig’s first two Bond films) is the police commissioner who has no love for the Mayor, but who holds more cards than he’ll admit. Kyle Chandler (Early Edition, last seen in Super 8) is Valliant’s campaign manager who’s too famous a supporting actor to be playing an inconsequential character. ’80s mainstay Griffin Dunne is a real estate developer who just so happens to be one of the Mayor’s biggest campaign financiers; his weaselly son is James Ransome, who also played weaselly son Ziggy Sobotka on season two of The Wire. And Grey’s Anatomy costar Justin Chambers is an intrusive indie filmmaker who employs Taggart’s girlfriend and rankles his fur in between scenes of arduous fact-finding.
How much more is there to the Mayor’s wife? How far will he go to set her straight? How far will Taggart backpedal once he realizes he’s in too deep? Has there ever been a crime drama involving rich real estate owners who weren’t the key to the mystery at the heart of it all? And, as Taggart asks when he becomes irritated with too many half-truths and enigmatic non-answers, “Does anyone in this town ever talk in complete sentences?” Indeed, the final answers to the full story are so simple, it’s a wonder they weren’t uncovered by some dogged reporter years before the movie began. I held my breath waiting for a new and clever revelation in the Mayor’s tale, but the results were Law & Order boilerplate plotting.
Admittedly, I was eventually surprised by the movie’s overarching moral — i.e., in a world full of closemouthed sinners, the confessor is king — but its selling point is the mounting tension between its two leads. Wahlberg’s leading-role specialty tend to be middle-class Everymen, tough but not too tough, trying to do the right thing in a world that keeps trying to smack them down. His fans won’t be disappointed here as he firmly navigates the maze of motives, all the while remaining shadowed by his dark past. Crowe tries on an ugly American hairdo, a diluted Five-Boroughs accent, and no small amount of sinister undercurrent, though he comes most alive in his final televised debate against Valliant, who pales during the onslaught from Mayor Maximus.
Behind the camera, director Allen Hughes (last seen working with brother Albert on The Book of Eli, one of the most underrated movies of 2010) handles his first solo effort with sufficient skill, allowing a few showy moments of art, such as the slow-motion 360-degree opening sequence that introduces us to the incident that changed Taggart’s life. Otherwise, Hughes doesn’t pretend Broken City is groundbreaking cinema. As he summed up the experience in a recent Entertainment Weekly interview: “The Hughes brothers’ [films] are more action-oriented and push things stylistically. It was a joy for me to sip some wine for a change and just let it breathe.”
The film eventually comes down to the main event of Wahlberg vs. Crowe, Oscar nominee vs. Oscar winner. Viewers hoping for an exciting title match may be let down by how much of the conflict is words and wits rather than weapons and wounds, though one car chase and a couple of token fights provide a pick-me-up of TV-PG violence to viewers less interested in the psychological aspects of the hunt for truth. Sensitive viewers may be less enamored of the rest of the content that earns the R rating.
Also, for the record: there’s no scene after the end credits. The credits fly by rather speedily, considering they didn’t have a dozen different CG studios to acknowledge. Your humble MCC end-credits monitor welcomed this change of pace.
(Broken City opens in U.S. theaters Friday, January 18th. Check your local websites for showtimes.)