The new thriller “Broken City” is something that hasn’t been attempted in a while by a studio feature, a classical private eye story in the Raymond Chandler tradition.
One character even comments on the tale’s old-fashioned origins when he says, “Private eyes? Do private eyes still exist?”
Although the script is set in present-day New York City, director Allen Hughes and writer Brian Tucker don’t bring anything fresh or contemporary to the formula. They just take clichés and put them in modern dress.
When beleaguered private investigator Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) skulks outside bedroom windows taking pictures for divorce cases, he uses a digital camera. Standard scene, new technology.
Billy works out of a run-down office, and most of his clients are past due on their bills. The only relief in his job is his pert and loyal girl Friday assistant, Katy (Alona Tal). Like many private eyes, he used to be a cop.
“Broken City” opens by showing how Billy became an ex-cop. He faces trial for murder after he is accused of gunning down a Puerto Rican kid who recently beat a rape and murder rap. When a judge throws out Billy’s case, Mayor Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe) and the next police commissioner (Jeffrey Wright) privately congratulate Billy on his acquittal, then force him to resign. The mayor softens the blow by saying he has a long memory.
Seven years later, Billy is called back into the mayor’s office. With election less than a week away, the mayor is locked in a tight race with a crusading city council member (Barry Pepper) who is named Jack Valliant, for crying out loud. But the mayor has another worry. He believes his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is cheating on him and wants Billy to discover her lover’s identity.
Billy tails the wife and is stunned to see her meeting clandestinely with Valliant’s campaign manager (Kyle Chandler).
Whenever Philip Marlowe and his brethren were hired by the rich and powerful, they were being set up. It doesn’t take Billy too long to realize that Mayor Hostetler has ulterior motives, and that they probably are related to a complex, $4 billion real estate deal involving a public housing development. This part of the story is reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” which was itself a throwback to hard-boiled detective stories although now, nearly 40 years on, it seems like one of Raymond Chandler’s contemporaries wrote it.
“Broken City” is Allen Hughes’ first solo feature without his twin brother, Albert. Together they directed “Menace II Society” and “The Book of Eli.” Alone, Allen Hughes maintains a high degree of competence. “Broken City” is a great looking film (Ben Seresin did the cinematography) with a better cast than it deserves.
But the required twists and turns of the detective plot cannot avoid the many plot holes. The biggest is Billy himself. The shooting turned him into a celebrity. While perhaps the average New Yorker might have forgotten his face, a political insider like Kyle Chandler’s character would not, particularly when Billy doesn’t hide it when trailing suspects.
First-time scenarist Tucker’s writing is often clumsy. The fact that Billy is a recovering alcoholic is inserted into the screenplay late, only a few scenes before he falls off the wagon. The dialogue also can be laughably expository, as when Billy’s girlfriend (Natalie Martinez) says, “It’s not every day that your girlfriend stars in an indie film.”
The girlfriend, who is also the rape victim’s sister, doesn’t warn Billy about her explicit sex scene in the indie film. This weird subplot doesn’t add anything to the story but an extra 10 minutes.
The performances are strong. Wahlberg plays what has become his standard, sullen role, but he is good at it.
As the corrupt mayor, Crowe is at his most dangerous when he is charming. When the microphones and cameras are off, he reveals himself as a racist, misogynist homophobe from Queens. In other words, an Archie Bunker who looks respectable in a three-piece suit.
After featuring in two of last year’s silliest films, “Rock of Ages” and “Playing for Keeps,” Zeta-Jones reminds the world that she is still a fine actress and someday might again find a worthy film. As Wahlberg’s spunky secretary, bright-faced Tal may have lucked into her breakthrough role. The Israeli-born actress has spent the last decade churning through television guest spots.
Complicated corruption, double-crosses and hidden motives are part of a standard hard-boiled detective story. But “Broken City” stuffs itself on these ingredients until the plot is more absurd than riveting. In the second half, Billy is trusted by people who should have no business trusting him.
Despite its talent, “Broken City” is an unremarkable film. Soon enough most everyone will forget about it. It’s not “Chinatown.”