Mark Wahlberg is no stranger to the American hardboiled crime/action thriller genre; in the past decade he has starred in The Departed, Shooter, Max Payne, Contraband and in particular, Wahlberg's previous collaborations with the much underrated American film director James Gray, The Yards and We Own the Night, are indicative of his great admiration for the enduring film genre. So it is no surprise that Wahlberg was attracted to Broken City, an unashamed throwback to the American crime films of the 1970s, which commonly displaced anti heroes in a unforgiving landscape of widespread corruption and conspiracy.
(Please note there are spoilers ahead)
In Broken City, the unforgiving landscape is the gritty, well tread streets of New York City, which have long been ruled by criminals in both high and low places. Wahlberg portrays NYPD detective Billy Taggart, who in the grim opening scenes of Broken City is arrested for the murder of Mikey Tavarez, a youth who previously escaped a conviction of rape and murder due to a legal technicality.
The death of Tavarez, who was slain in the streets of a notorious NYC borough, greatly divides the city, but behind the immaculate walls of NYC Mayor's Office, a private discussion ensues between Mayor Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe) and Captain Carl Fairbanks (Jeffrey Wright), concerning the immediate fate of Taggart. Taggart is found not guilty of the charges, but due to his actions, he is forced to leave the NYPD.
Seven years pass and the once disgraced Taggart is now making his living as a low level private investigator and has rebuilt his life with long term girlfriend, Natalie Barrow (Natalie Martinez), an actress on the cusp of fame. However Taggert's growing debt is weighing heavily on his mind and when he receives a call out of the blue from Hostetler, he is very eager to please.
The offer Hostetler makes is simple enough; tail his wife, Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and find out who she is having an affair with. In return, Taggert will receive an easy $50,000. Hostetler wants this private matter dealt with discreetly and swiftly as he is currently running for another term as Mayor, against beloved City Councilman, Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper).
Taggart manages to complete the task without any complications and unexpectedly finds out Cathleen's lover is Paul Andrews (Kyle Chandler), Valliant's campaign manager. But just as Taggart is about to reveal all to the increasingly hostile Hostetler, Cathleen makes a desperate plea to Taggart, asking him to believe her that not all is as it seems. Taggart, who is somewhat humoured by the indiscretions of these elite citizens, defiantly turns her away, choosing to remain loyal to Hostetler. But Taggart's actions quickly prove to be regretful and Taggart finds himself trailing a major political conspiracy.
Directed by Allen Hughes (his first solo directorial effort without twin brother, Albert Hughes) Broken City is an enjoyable procedural and political conspiracy thriller, but it is not without its flaws - namely the character development of Natalie Barrow. A large portion of the script is dedicated to Taggart's inability to feel at ease with his girlfriend's profession and new crowd of hanger-ons - a result of her new found success in the independent film scene. As the conspiracy/mystery narrative progresses, it seems unnecessary to dwell on these unrelated personal issues of the characters, particularly when the background of Taggart and Barrow's relationship is all the more interesting, as demonstrated in the short but touching scene in which Taggart returns to his former hometown to visit Barrow's mother and father.
But despite these issues, Broken City does have many highlights, in particular, a decent role for the much underrated Pepper, who excels as New York City's would be white knight. Alona Tal also deserves a special mention as Taggart's unflinching assistant, who sweetly says 'Everytime' whenever thanked by Taggart. Crowe too proves to be fascinating to watch, as the shady yet charismatic Hostetler, who seems to have everyone under his spell. His scenes with Wahlberg in particular are a delight to view. The cinematography is commendable, with the traditional noir palette of murky greys and stark blacks and the atmospheric score, headed by Atticus Ross, is certainly fitting. Ultimately Broken City is an entertaining thriller, but it is sadly let down by a glaringly uneven script. The film however remains a decent entry in Wahlberg's canon of genre films and as he is listed as a producer, it is easy to see he was quite invested in the production. My only hope is that Wahlberg's next foray into the American hardboiled crime/action thriller genre will once again be helmed by Gray.