If your film involves a tough-talking private eye who is hired to investigate an extramarital affair involving one of the city’s major power players, and he ends up discovering layer after layer of political corruption along the way, you’re begging to be compared to Roman Polanski’s noir masterpiece Chinatown. That’s the very high bar director Allen Hughes sets for himself with Broken City.
Mark Wahlberg stars as Billy Taggart, a New York City private gumshoe struggling to get his deadbeat clients to pay when he gets a call from Mayor Hostetler -- played with welcome gusto by Russell Crowe. His Honor remembers Billy from seven years ago when, as a cop, the young man shot a rapist who had been exonerated on a technicality. Back then, the mayor told Billy he was a hero, but Billy was still forced off the job due to the public outcry and some incriminating evidence that never saw the light of day. Now the politician needs someone he can trust to find out if his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is having an affair -- a fact that could cause him considerable trouble seeing as Election Day is just a week away.
Soon Billy follows the wife, photographing her clandestine meetings with a man who turns out to be Paul Andrews (Kyle Chandler), a prominent figure in the campaign of city councilman Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper), the person running against the mayor. But of course in a film like this, nothing is as it seems, and when a major player in the mix turns up murdered, Billy realizes he might be a pawn in a much bigger game.
Give Allen Hughes and freshman screenwriter Brian Tucker points for sprawl -- Broken City touches on a wide range of topics, including urban gentrification, survivor’s guilt, racism, and closeted homosexuality -- but what they don’t get any points for is originality or plausibility. Broken City is fine while you’re watching it -- there’s really no pretext that this is reality so you can forgive giant logical holes like how a former cop who was almost on trial, bringing thousands of protestors to city hall and waves of TV coverage with him, could possibly find work as a private eye, or why certain members of the city’s power elite don’t recognize him immediately because of his past.
The cast also makes this genre entry go down smoothly. Catherine Zeta-Jones alternates between conniving and victimized, both with an overlay of sultriness, Jeffrey Wright is forceful as the police commissioner whose motives are never clear until the end, and Alona Tal nails a handful of funny lines as Billy’s secretary.
All of them help make this a watchable movie, but none of them can surmount the script’s flaws to make it memorable. If you need a pithy, Twitter-ready review for Broken City it would be “Forget it Jake, it’s not Chinatown.” leave a comment --Perry Seibert