If your goal is to make a contemporary version of Roman Polanski's Chinatown, complete with an anti-heroic private eye and a shady land-grab deal overseen by corrupt politicians and businessmen, you'd best bring your A-game. It's too bad then, that the creative forces behind Broken City -- including director Allen Hughes, screenwriter Brian Tucker and star Mark Wahlberg -- only came to play with their B-game. But hey, even second-string teams can eke out a victory now and then and Broken City turns out to be a solid, if unexceptional, urban crime yarn that updates the Chinatown template from 1930s Los Angeles for 2010s New York, although the movie's version of the Big Apple feels a heck of a lot closer to the '90s than today.
That time-warp feeling begins with Wahlberg's co-star Russell Crowe, cast here as New York mayor Nicolas Hostetler, a politician whose volatile temper and penchant for backroom deals positions him as being more Rudy Giuliani than Michael Bloomberg. Instead, the Bloomberg role is assumed by Hostetler's challenger in the upcoming election, a wealthy, but community service-minded councilman with the too-good-to-be-true name of Jack Valiant (Barry Pepper). With Valiant's message of shared sacrifice and economic prosperity for all trumping Hostetler's tough on crime/corporations are people stance in the polls (a political philosophy highlighted by his approval of a controversial real estate deal that would surrender city land currently occupied by a housing project to a private developer), the incumbent is clearly in need of some extra insurance to guarantee that he'll retain his office.
For that election-winning bit of dirt, he turns to disgraced cop-turned-private eye Billy Taggart (Wahlberg), who was drummed out of the force seven years ago after avoiding jail time for killing a suspect in the line of duty. Since then, Taggart has (barely) earned a living by following the J.J. Gittes model of sleuthing -- namely snapping pictures of men cheating on their wives. Hostetler hires him to photograph another adulterous couple, namely his wife and the city's First Lady Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and her mystery paramour. Tailing his target, Taggart discovers that she appears to be knocking boots with the head of Valiant's campaign, Paul Chandler (Kyle Chandler). But their apparent romance turns out to be just a smokescreen masking a far more complicated plot, one marked by the stench of corruption at the highest levels of power. This scheme -- which would reshape the face of New York -- is soul-shattering enough to put reformed alcoholic Taggart right back on the sauce, even though crossing that line effectively ends his romance with his long-time girlfriend (Natalize Martinez), one of the few people to stick by his side following his forced exit from the police department.
Look, the chance of this particular trio making another Chinatown was always out of reach, no matter how closely Tucker hewed to that movie's beats in his script. (Heck, even Robert Towne and Jack Nicholson couldn't recreate the magic when they reunited for The Two Jakes in 1990.) But he, Hughes and Wahlberg bring enough conviction to this loose remake to at least make Broken City modestly entertaining on its own terms. As someone who generally finds Wahlberg hilarious in comedies (like Ted, I Heart Huckabees and, going way back, Renaissance Man) and stultifying in more action-y fare (such as the god-awful Contraband, which was dumped into theaters in January last year; if Wahlberg isn't careful, he's going to become Mr. January to Will Smith's Mr. July), I have to admit to enjoying his performance here. He's no Jack Nicholson, obviously, but Taggart complements his skill set in that he's a character who is frequently out of his depth, a speed-bump in a plan he never fully grasps -- something that Wahlberg is able to portray almost effortlessly. (As an actor, he's generally at his least convincing when he's supposed to be most in control.)
The rest of the cast hits their marks with panache as well; fresh of his turn as the heavy in Les Misérables, Crowe is clearly much more at ease threatening people via spoken word rather than song and while Zeta-Jones doesn't get any big dramatic "She's my sister and may daughter!" moments a la Faye Dunaway, she does do a convincing impersonation of a woman that hates being in the same room as Russell Crowe. Pepper and Chandler provide able backup, but the invaluable Jeffrey Wright is the movie's most valuable supporting player as the police commissioner who is one step ahead of everyone else in the movie... including, on several occasions, the screenwriter. Behind the camera, Hughes keeps the proceedings clipping along at a good pace, which distracts from some of the more ragged plotting in Tucker's script. Taking a macro view, the story doesn't really hang together, but on a scene-to-scene basis, it mostly tracks because of his fluid direction. (Kudos to the filmmakers for not turning Taggart's tumble off the wagon into a bigger subplot; if anything, he actually improves at his job after picking up the bottle, a bit of dark humor that's suitably Polanski-ish.) A B-movie in every sense of the term, Broken City isn't in the same ballpark as the movie that inspired it, but at least it's playing the same game.
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