The second you give away a major twist in a trailer, you should know your movie's not in great shape. That's the case with Allen Hughes' new crime drama Broken City, which reveals in its trailer that Russell Crowe's Mayor Hostetler is not a man to be trusted. If you know even as little as that much going in, it's not difficult to piece together how the story of Mark Wahlberg's Billy Taggart is going to end long before he figures it out.
It's not that Broken City is bad, it's just that it's not half as clever as it thinks it is. The film is clearly set up as a detective story, but it's not a very good one; it becomes clear early on that the few repeated major plot points are all going to tie together in a nice little package. The decision Billy makes in the first scene is significant. The location where it happens, Bolton Village, is significant. Mayor Hostetler’s choice to protect Billy is significant. All these elements, introduced early in Broken City, are so glaringly relevant that a viewer would have to willfully ignore the obvious to not realize what's going on before the characters do.
Even without the trailer as a heads up, it's clear once the movie gets started that Billy, the detective-turned-private investigator who’s hired by the Mayor to follow his allegedly cheating wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones), is in over his head. The plot unfolds to show that, yes, Billy doesn't know what he's getting himself into, although he does make a decision to give the film a satisfying, if abrupt, conclusion.
Fortunately the predictability doesn't entirely ruin the movie. Broken City has a great cast, and it plays its central actors to their strengths. Wahlberg is never more comfortable than when he's playing a cop, even if Billy is a New Yorker, and he's back in his element here. Crowe clearly had a lot of fun as the Mayor, perhaps even than he had as Javert in Les Miserables. Hostetler is a weasel and a crook, and Crowe plays the part to perfection.
Zeta-Jones doesn't have much to do as Cathleen Hostetler, and probably would have been better served with a role that was a bit more exciting. Kyle Chandler makes great use of what screen time he has as Paul Andrews, particularly when he acts off of Wahlberg in a scene on a train, and Barry Pepper's Jack Valliant in a faux political debate. Poor Natalie Martinez has the shoehorned role of Natalie Barrow, Billy's girlfriend, who exists seemingly only to explain his earlier actions. Once she does that, she gets in the way of the plot and is easily shoved aside.
Hughes doesn't feel like he's in his wheelhouse here. He's done genre films in the past with From Hell and The Book of Eli, but when he has to play it straight, it doesn't seem like he has as easy a time. Broken City tries really hard to convince its viewers that they're three steps behind it, when really they're likely a step or two ahead. The final resolution doesn’t come out of left field, and the fate of Wahlberg's character was laid out in the opening minutes of the movie.
Broken City is screenwriter Brian Tucker's first screen credit, and it's clear he has room to grow. The seeds of a great movie are in Broken City, but it doesn’t have a chance to become as good as it could have been. At last there's a nice Dick Tracy vibe to the movie, and that's one of its more endearing elements. Characters use terms like "gangbusters" and "cut-rate dick" in a clear throwback to earlier detective stories.
If it were as smart and as sly as it wanted to be, Broken City would’ve been a much better film, but unfortunately it had to settle with just being an OK one. Fans of the detective genre might find something pulpy to like here and, again, all of its major players give good performances, but everyone else will likely find the movie easily forgettable.
Broken City opens today nationwide.