Cheaters never prosper in Broken City

Despite some hot direction, Mark Wahlberg’s latest never catches fire.

| January 18, 2013
FRIENEMIES: Mark Wahlberg and Russell Crowe star in director Allen Hughes’ Broken City
FRIENEMIES: Mark Wahlberg and Russell Crowe star in director Allen Hughes’ Broken City

Broken City

Critic’s Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5

Rated R by the MPAA


Broken City should have been titled Broken Home. Written and directed by Allen Hughes (Menace II Society, Book of Eli), Broken City’s sinful web of secrets is spun from the silk of lies, infidelities, and lies about infidelities.

Seven years before Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) became a private detective — “Do those even exist anymore?”— he was an NYPD badge protecting and serving until his name was tarnished after he gunned down a murderer and rapist who’d been “acquitted on a technicality” and cut loose. There is a trial akin to that of the Trayvon Martin confusion. Taggart goes free. There is public ire and public approval all at once, but none is more appreciative than the mother and father of the girl whose life was stolen and then forgotten thanks to technicalities.

The deceased girl’s older sister is appreciative of justice in yet another way: Natalie Barrow (Natalie Martinez) is an actress, and becomes Taggart’s girlfriend either out of love or a sense of debt. She is the light of his life. He quit drinking for her, and he’s eternally protective of her, a trait which comes to a head when she must act in a sex scene for her first indie movie.

Taggart is a detective now who does very little detecting. He does the slimy, grimy jobs. Tailing lascivious wives, snapping photos, sifting through dirty laundry, if you will. This clichéd penchant for dirt and a loyal relationship with the mayor of New York City, Mayor Hostetler (Russell Crowe), boils down to a favor. Hostetler is running for reelection against the tritely liberal Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper), running his fingers through a scummy real estate deal and playing a hunch that his wife is sleeping around with his opponent. The mixture of these three elements is potentially nuclear, and Hostetler enlists Taggart to investigate.

Taggart stalks suspects through a New York that seems to have been written by someone who’s never been there. In fact, Hughes gives the impression of knowing his portrayal is so weak that a titular proper noun is thrown in every other scene to remind us where all these machinations are supposedly taking place. But the characters speak like people from absolutely nowhere. Their words are clunky and unnatural, not even cinematic. It is dialogue desperate to be interesting, and only once in a while is there a recognizable success. Some mild laughter here, an audible ooh there, however, I never want to fault a writer in the current movie climate from writing scenes that break convention from the usual terse, merely-functional “conversations” we’ve been conditioned to expect in thrillers. The small victories, though, are undermined by wooden acting which only ever sways from dullness to yelling that signifies the Anger Emotion.

Hughes’s great talent, identifiable in all of the movies that he usually writes and directs with his brother, is energy. Broken City moves like someone in a hurry to catch the F train. It never lags, and as much time as I might have spent thinking up clever ways to insult this flick, I daren’t blink lest I miss something crucial to this otherwise-ordinary-but-totally-committed plot. We wanted fireworks, they brought us confetti.

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