“What was that other run-of-the-mill thriller I saw a long time ago?” I wondered as I put on my coat after the Broken City screening. “With Mark Wahlberg as a private eye and Russell Crowe as a corrupt mayor? … Oh, wait, that was this one.” Broken City, the first solo directorial outing by Allen Hughes (half of the twin-brother team who made Menace II Society, From Hell, and The Book of Eli), is one of those movies that recedes in the course of its own viewing. The movie’s curious capacity for self-erasure makes it a tough one to write about; less than 24 hours later, I recall it with all the clarity of something I half-watched on a plane with a hangover in 1996.
This much I know: Mark Wahlberg plays Billy Taggart, an NYPD cop who’s forced to retire after being acquitted in a headline-making excessive-force case. Seven years later, now the proprietor of an insolvent detective agency, Taggart is contacted by the mayor, Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe), who suspects his wife, Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones), of having an affair. Taggart tails the errant Mrs. Hostetler to a beach house in Montauk, where the assignation in progress goes beyond mere adultery. What the mayor learns from the photos Taggart brings him could change the course of the impending election, for which the Giuliani-esque Hostetler is currently running neck-and-neck with a more liberal, populist challenger, Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper).
Like all the nonsinging parts of ABC’s Nashville, Broken City vastly overestimates its audience’s degree of investment in the minutiae of crooked real-estate deals and mayoral election malfeasance. (At a key moment in the climactic Wahlberg/Crowe faceoff, the camera dramatically tilts its way down to … a contract! To reveal … signatures at the bottom! That we already knew would be there, thanks to the scene’s ample exposition!) Not every convolution in the overplotted middle stretch requires or repays the viewer’s close attention: There’s just way too much going on, from sordid revelations about Valliant’s campaign manager (Kyle Chandler) and the mayor’s police-commissioner crony (Jeffrey Wright), to a stillborn subplot in which Taggart’s Puerto Rican actress girlfriend (Natalie Martinez) stars in a truly terrible-looking indie film. (It’s possible the director intended that briefly glimpsed movie-within-a-movie, titled Kiss of Life, as a satire of terrible indies, in which case he has a bright future as a genre parodist.)
Though it’s set in the present day, Broken City’s tough-talking gumshoe protagonist and uniformly bleak view of human nature betray its aspiration to the cool nihilism of postwar noir. Everyone’s a dirty double-crosser, from the mayor on down, and our hero Taggart, a pugnacious alcoholic, is only one redemption scene away from being as rotten as the rest of them. What little integrity we do attribute to this morally sketchy protagonist comes courtesy of Wahlberg, who has an innate gift for projecting guilelessness and deep-down decency even as he kicks a dude to death. (There’s plenty of violence in Broken City, but it’s old-school sock-‘em-in-the-jaw-style violence, “dry” rather than “wet.”) Crowe brings a sleazy, blustering charm to the part of the villainous mayor, even if his accent racks up frequent flyer miles careening between New York, Boston, and Sydney. And Barry Pepper—an interesting, hard-to-type character actor who looks like a cross between Paul Dano and Christopher Walken—gets one big, operatic breakdown scene that doesn’t seem to belong anywhere in this movie’s tightlipped, macho universe and is therefore one of the best things in it.
There are a couple such so-wrong-they’re-right moments in Broken City—another being Catherine Zeta-Jones’ character’s deliciously camp kiss-off to her humiliated husband, which elicited an appreciative burst of laughter from a generally enervated audience at the screening I think I remember seeing. But for most of its running time this underachieving political thriller just sort of plods along, hitting its genre marks with little concern for originality or style. If Broken City ever comes on when you’re hungover on a plane, go ahead and watch if you’re in the mood for a movie—it will make an hour and 49 minutes of the flight pass marginally faster than they might have otherwise. Then again, so would a Bloody Mary and a nap.