Broken City should win the Oscar for “At Least They Didn’t Make Russell Crowe Sing.” But that’s just about the most positive thing to say about it. You’d think Crowe would be at home in a smarmy, corrupt, badass Mayor of New York suit, but a ridiculous accent and a possibly more ridiculous blonde coif make his performance only slightly less uncomfortable to watch than his go as Javert, the vengeful and weak-voiced inspector in Les Misérables. His counterpart here is a sedated, watered-down Mark Wahlberg – I saw more from this guy in the preview for Pain & Gain than I did in the whole of Broken City. The result is a murky, sloppy New York crime film that makes you not really care that it just doesn’t work.
The film begins by showing us that Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) is a former cop who lost his job because he killed a man who may or may not have committed a rape and murder. It’s quickly seven years later and he’s running a private investigation business where he gets people to say they’ll pay him to take pictures of their significant others committing adultery. The problem is, they almost never come through with the money, no matter how much they’re harassed by his blonde, pretty, working college student assistant, Katy (Alona Tal).
The bulk of the movie takes place in the days leading up to the mayoral election, and things are heating up for the incumbent Mayor of New York, Nicholas Hostetler (Crowe). Mister Mayor Spray Tan is a leathery man with an accent that I guess is supposed to be “Tough New Yorker” but when he starts to yell, dips into “I’m Trying Hard Not To Sound Australian.” But we know he’s tough because he says words like “homos” and plays squash while chewing gum and insists that the Post is a legitimate news source, the one from which he gets his current events fix, “like the rest of New York.” His wife, Cathleen, the equally inept at pretending to be American, Catherine Zeta-Jones, is causing him trouble, and who’s the guy to fix it? Mark Wahlberg, obvs.
I put together that we’re probably supposed to believe that the lack of money Billy Taggart is getting from his PI business leads him to accept the deal from the Mayor to find out who’s screwing his First Lady. But that’s one problem with Broken City. Details like Taggart’s failing business and his relationship with his actress girlfriend (who happens to be the sister of the victim of the rapist he questionably shot down), details like that should be important, should propel the story, but they just don’t.
From there, we’re dragged into a series of twists and turns, and we learn along with Markie Mark that things aren’t exactly what they seem. There’s a lot of corruption and politics; there’s a deal with a housing project; and there’s an election. They swirl together into an incestuous mixture of lies and blackmail attempts. We’re afforded snippets of explanation throughout, enough to keep up with Billy but not enough to “give away” the ending; we never know just how much information anyone really has. The tired thing is that all this exposition is done where someone, the one with the most information at the time, literally explains everything to Billy Taggart’s face after he has demanded, “What’s going on?!” There’s no finesse, no originality, and no mystery to the revelation of any plot point in Broken City. About twenty minutes from the end of the film, Billy yells, “Doesn’t anybody in this town speak in complete fucking sentences anymore?” Then, the person he yelled that at tells him the rest of the story, revealing what he needed to know the whole time. If Billy had screamed that an hour earlier, the movie would have been fifteen minutes long.
There are some inexplicable mental breakdowns, suggestions of hidden homosexuality, overtly old-fashioned, racist and homophobic characterizations, and unnecessary jabs at The New York Times, but none of these do a thing to advance any sort of cohesive plot or do anything but sort of paint a picture of how broken this city is meant to look. It’s supposed to be noir-ish, I guess, because it rains and there are scenes at night and there are guns. Also, the guy running for mayor opposite Crowe’s Hostetler is a Connecticut-raised Harvard grad whose name, no joke, is Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper, who really commits, which only seems out of place because no one else looks like they’re trying very hard). Broken City is an attempt to show Gotham, but there’s no Batman, no intentional camp, and no success or clarity of vision.