Broken City is an A-List political thriller of blackmail, murder, betrayal and intrigue... but one that somehow fails to fully live up to its potential...
When Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) is compromised because of actions he took during an arrest, there's no way that he can remain on the police force. However the one - apparently damning - piece of evidence that could have made a bad situation even worse is deliberately sat on by rising politician Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe) who knows that people like Taggart are always eventually useful to have on your side. As a result, Taggart avoids serious jail-time. Several years later, with Mayor Hostetler facing a tough re-election race, the marker is called in. With the ex-cop being forced to live bill-to-bill as a private detective, Taggart is happy to accept some surveillance work from the politician. The problem is that the Mayor is convinced his wife Cathhleen (Catherine Zeta Jones) is being unfaithful. He wants bonafide proof so that he can control the outcome and not jeopardise his campaign.
Taggart's efforts do uncover that Cathleen is indeed meeting someone behind her husband's back - but the who and the why prove to be more complex. When the man she is meeting is first found to be working for Hostetler's opponent and then ends up dead, Taggart realises that he may have got himself into an even worse situation. But with the Mayor holding all the cards, how can Taggart get himself out of trouble again?
When a film boasts the like of Mark Wahlberg and Russell Crowe in a political thriller, it's always worth sitting up and taking notice. Both are respected actors with a good track-record and, frankly, who doesn't like some intrigue and menace and party-political shenanigans that isn't actually happening in real life? Unfortunately this isn't a film that shows them at their best - instead giving us a somewhat rudderless story that promises more than it delivers.
The problem here is that Broken City never really pays off the most interesting elements and premise to their full potential. Crowe is perfectly fine as a manipulative politician and Wahlberg has always had an eye for the slightly world-weary underdog... and they slip into their respective roles adequately if not memorably. However, you expect from the mounting, slow-burn sense of menace (which initially works well - drawing us into a situation where we know various, conflicting agendas are at play), that we'll discover the true motivations and bigger picture as we go along. Secrets do unravel and the plot thickens with stark consquences, but the momentum doesn't so much build as plateau, taking us so far and then faulting on less dramatic inertia to take us to the finishing line.
At times there are faint echoes of classics such as Chinatown and the ruthless political/electioneering that always makes good drama, but, bluntly, the feeling that we're building UP to something never quite plays out - a climax that when it comes leaves the audience thinking 'Oh, okay, fine but is that it?' It's a drip by TOO-steady drip story and almost the reverse of the situations where Hollywood takes a true story and over-dramatises it... here we have a fictional escapade that ends up in a somewhat down-played more 'real world' climax rather than the stirring edge-of-your-seat swooping orchestral movements and face-off drama for which we clamour and expect. It's as if the film finally loses its enthusiasm as it enters the third act, going for what feels like a TV procedural's character-study of consequences rather than a punch-the-air denouement or a dark and cynical end. There's pragmatism here, to be sure, but no real evidence of passion.
Perhaps there's some blame to be laid at the feet of the usually-reliable Allen Hughes, here in his solo-directing feature-debut (previously, The Hughes Brothers had essayed far superior Menace II Society, From Hell and The Book of Eli) who simply doesn't serve up the much-needed sense of urgency. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with Broken City except that it fails to quite measure up to some far superior films that it simultaneously wants to emulate. Everyone here goes through the motions and there are a handful of powerful scenes but it ultimately isn't the sum of its impressive parts.
This is the kind of film that you come out of thinking 'It was okay' but will probably forget about soon afterwards. With the talent on show, one simply expected something more.