Lost in the corpulent backlot of 2013 movies is “Broken City”, a political/crime thriller that features a fine cast and a common but still interesting idea. The film marks the solo directorial debut of Allen Hughes who is known for his past works with his brother including “The Book of Eli” and “Menace II Society”. An underperformer at the box office and generally panned by critics, “Broken City” is looked at as a movie that squanders its potential. But is that a fair criticism? In a nutshell, yes it is.
For me, the biggest problem with “Broken City” reveals itself early and persists through the entire picture. There is practically no fire or energy shown in any facet of movie. In a story that should generate plenty of emotional spark, all we get are dry characters, dry scenarios, and a dry ending. There is rarely a charge of life anywhere to be found and the movie seems to wallow in lethargy. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact blame. Is it the direction from Hughes? Is it Brian Tucker’s script? Could it be the actors who seemingly have no interest in what they’re doing?
Mark Wahlberg stars as a former New York police detective named Billy Taggert. Seven years after being forced to leave the department following a controversy and PR nightmare, he works as a struggling private detective. Things get complicated when the New York City Mayor Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe) hires him to find out who his wife (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones) is having an affair with. Little does Billy know that by taking the case he would be catapulted into a complex political web involving the mayor, his opponent for the upcoming elections (Barry Pepper), and the police commissioner (Jeffrey Wright).
There is a pretty familiar formula that the movie uses while still trying to do a few things of its own. Unfortunately a lot of time is wasted on superfluous side stories that are never fleshed out to the point of being interesting. The best example of that involves Billy’s aspiring actress girlfriend (played by Natalie Martinez). Her character and their struggling relationship seems shoehorned in to try and add some humanity to Billy. She is present for a short time and then completely drops off the map. It’s also one of those movies littered with lucky timing and all sorts of conveniences. Whether Billy is pulling up just as someone throws out a suspicious bag of garbage or whether he is never spotted while supposedly hiding in plain site.
While the characters are mostly flat and dormant, there are moments where that approach really works. Crowe and Wright have some great back-and-forths generated from the internal rivalry of their characters. Their verbal jabs are stinging and these two great actors have a lot of fun with the animosity. Wahlberg doesn’t get those types of moments. He spends the entire movie stone-faced and rarely shows one ounce of emotion. I’m not sure if it is how he is written or how he was directed, but his character could have been so much better with just an ounce of charisma or personality. That toned down approach turns out to be a problem for every character.
“Broken City” does featuring some great cinematography that captures a variety of New York City flavors. And again, there are a few moments of good crisp dialogue particularly between Crowe and Wright. Unfortunately the lack of zest and the wasted time spent on half-cooked characters doesn’t elevate the film past its already formulaic structure. It’s really a shame because a movie with this strong of a cast could have been better. Instead it’s a forgettable, below-average thriller that deserves its spot in the backlot of the 2013 movies.