Officer Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) got in a spot of bother when he shot and killed a young man who had been tried and released (on a “technicality”) of raping and murdering a young woman on Taggart’s beat. Mayor Hostetler (Russell Crowe) made sure that Taggart’s self-defence story won the day and Taggart went free. Seven years later, Taggart is a PI and Hostetler wants him to find out who is sleeping with his (Hostetler’s) wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The mayor is also in the midst of his re-election bid, challenged by Jack Valiant (Barry Pepper), and wants to clear up the matter without the press getting involved. When Taggart gets the information, he finds that things were not as they seemed and is embroiled in city politics and a murder investigation that police chief Fairbanks (Jeffrey Wright) takes a particular interest in.
This wasn’t really the kind of movie I was expecting. I was expecting something akin to Safe (2012) with thin characters and a cartoonishly cynical story line. Here, the characters were sketched with a thicker pencil and the story was sketched a bit more realistically. Like so many movies that I like, I saw a lot more that was almost there than actually made the final cut. More to the point, I didn’t blame them (for whatever reason) for the failure. With so many movies out there, and Django Unchained (2012) is a prime example, where it’s as though they don’t even try to go somewhere that I’m willing to accept the garbled or half-hearted attempt as a success. I should add the caveat “where the material is so mainstream and safe.”
I also really like the main characters. There’s something about Wahlberg and Crowe that I find immensely appealing. It isn’t Wahlberg’s acting range, that’s for sure, but what range he does have is never irritating to me because it’s almost always close to a real, if brusque, person. Jason Statham has similarly limited range, but on the posturing side of reality. Crowe, however, is the kind of actor Harrison Ford thinks he is. He can be fiercely menacing or surprisingly benign. This is one of his better performances and likely the second piece of good work (with The Next Three Days (2010)) to go unremarked. This is odd since, looking over his credits, he hasn’t taken advantage of the rare opportunities in decent movies.
I’m of two minds on the direction by Allen Hughes. There were a number of solid moments well delivered. There were also moments where I noticed the camera’s nauseously rapid turns about the carousel, but only once did I lose balance. What he did accomplish, and why I ultimately liked the movie, was that he kept an even pace. Yes, there was a break-neck turn when Taggart went from jaded PI to determined revenge-seeker, and I noted it, but Hughes kept in a scene where Taggart goes on a bender that was perfect. Where he fell down, and he did it every time, was in not building on these good moments. He never openly called back to something for thematic effect. Example. There’s an early line when Taggart is doing some collection work on his own clients and he said (something like), “There’s no worse a man than a man who doesn’t pay his debts.” Later on, Taggart says (something like), “I’ve got a debt to pay.” Chances are that this was precisely the kind of call-back I wanted and chances are that it was intentional, but it was imperfectly done. If he had said the exact same line again, it would have had the same meaning but doubled the effect because it would concentrate a character point which was absolutely essential for the success of the movie.
Two questions that I think need to be answered. How is city is broken and how did it break? The implication is that the city is broken because it is corrupt. That sounds a bit tautological. Is it because the mayor is corrupt financially or the police are corrupt morally? If either is the case, I expect more than two individuals to carry the burden of branding the city broken. After all, it’s an awfully nice city. As the mayor says, “Tell me things haven’t changed? When you go out to your public parks, do you feel safe?” That’s a strong argument and the movie relies on our fear of the badge and distrust of the wealthy to counter it.
Broken City points to the counter point and, if you’re a stickler, more than points. The central murder, for one thing, is an obvious downside. When financial corruption is enforced with violence, then you’ve broken the system by creating fear. But mere financial corruption doesn’t create fear, it creates inefficiency and Broken City doesn’t show that side (which, admittedly, would be very difficult to do succinctly). The other pointer is Taggart’s guilt. When I walked away from the movie, I thought that was the biggest missed opportunity for drama.
Despite this, I thought the script by Brian Tucker was top notch. The dialogue is pretty strong, especially if you put a premium on real-ness, with a couple classics (my favorite: “I also like to win Staten Island without having to go there”). And there are plenty of hints that some necessaries were left on the cutting room floor (or ditched in re-writes). The “debt” problem, I suspect to be a victim of poorly directed re-writes. Never blame a writer, right? It’s the first credit for Tucker, that’s awesome. Too bad that it seems like the critics have decided to take a small dump on the movie–a 25% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which blames the script explicitly, is more than a small dump–but take no time in disregarding them.
Their problem seems to be formula and “meager rewards” which echoes the problems with The Ides of March (2011) (an 85% rating). Formula can mean one of two things, it can mean cliched or it can mean contrived (“First he’ll do this to create conflict,” says the producer, “then he’ll do that to resolve it, this will be his love interest, and then…”). Broken City falls (debatably) into both categories where The Ides of March can only really fall into the second. But the second condemnation, “meager rewards”, is the real one and where both fell down for lack of imagination in the rewards column. The difference between The Ides of March and Broken City was execution and expectation. A Clooney movie with Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, and more on board set the bar pretty high and then found a way of failing in ways that didn’t upset expectations (at least the acting was good). Broken City couldn’t have had much in the way of expectation. Released in January (bad sign), starring the hunky Contraband (2012) Mark Wahlberg not the acting The Fighter (2010) Mark Wahlberg from an unknown screenwriter and half the Hughes brothers directing team. I think that Broken City is a victim of an unconsciously coordinated sigh of despair about the 2012 Best Picture nominations. Otherwise, nobody would expect more than fun from a January mystery film.
You could draw up a matrix for the way I react to a movie. The premise is that virtually all movies are imperfect and most are a significant distance from perfection. The question is whether I, the viewer, will give the movie a pass on its imperfections. I come into the theater or sit down to a movie at home in either a good, a blank, or, rarely (because I like movies), a bad expectation about the movie I’m about to watch. So, in judging the movie, either my good mood may bolster my tolerance for imperfection or there will be some cache of good will built up in the movie to do the same. Otherwise, I’ll get angry. Being human, I also set to watch something with moods unrelated to the movie and, because that’s the way my motor runs, the worse I’m feeling the more receptive to cache-building blank or bad mood movies and the more antagonistic and cache-destroying I am to good mood movies. I went in to Broken City with a blank expectation and blank mood and liked the movie.
Last point. Making Crowe look like he’s playing Frank Sinatra was a questionable poster choice.