It’s not that bad.
That’s some pretty light praise, to be sure. But for a movie whose publicity campaign has been built around tweets from random civilians — who haven’t even seen it — “Broken City” had all the markings of a disaster.
The neo-noir thriller has a few things going for it, namely its stellar cast led by Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe and Catherine Zeta-Jones. And the latter two don’t sing.
But, let’s face it, it’s the kind of big studio movie that, if it were better, wouldn’t be hitting theaters in January — that jarring intersection of art and commerce, prestige and afterthoughts that finds the likes of Jessica Chastain rubbing elbows with Leatherface.
As “Broken City” opens, NYPD detective Billy Taggart (Wahlberg) is on trial for killing a suspect many felt got away with raping and murdering a 16-year-old girl.
He’s eventually cleared, but only because some last-minute evidence was “temporarily misplaced.” (It is a broken city, after all.)
And while Mayor Hostetler (Crowe) makes it clear he considers Taggart a hero — over the objections of a skeptical police commissioner (Jeffrey Wright, who gets a couple of nice moments) — Taggart is forced to resign.
Cut to seven years later, and Taggart’s a struggling private investigator who never can seem to collect payment for his services. (It’s also, apparently, a broke city.)
So he doesn’t ask many questions when the mayor offers him $50,000 to find out with whom his wife (a breathy Zeta-Jones) is having an affair before that information surfaces in a bitter election.
At least that’s what he tells Taggart.
Within 24 hours of handing the mayor a set of incriminating photos, though, Taggart’s dragged into a sensational murder investigation.
The killing also helps to overshadow a controversial $4 billion land deal, affecting the 37,512 residents of a housing project, that could either preserve the mayor’s legacy or destroy it.
Everything in “Broken City” is connected — a little too much so.
The housing project, the murder, the shooting seven years ago, the mayor, his biggest donor. Even, to an extent, Taggart’s actress girlfriend (Natalie Martinez). Odds are, if they have a speaking part, they’re somehow involved. This not only feels too convenient, it doesn’t allow for much in the way of surprises.
“Broken City” brings out both Mark Wahlbergs: the staccato, posturing Mark Wahlberg and the engaging, “Say hello to your mother for me” Mark Wahlberg.
The latter is much more fun.
Taggart shares an easy banter with his sassy assistant/debt collector (Alona Tal), and he’s a different person whenever she’s around.
From the decor to the well-worn filing cabinets to the way his name is printed on the glass in his front door, it looks as though Taggart reconstructed the office of a 1940s gumshoe.
There’s probably even a better movie (“Billy Taggart: Anachronistic Detective”?), or at least a USA-style TV series, inside “Broken City” that would mostly focus on the two of them.
But “Broken City” — written by first-timer Brian Tucker and directed by Allen Hughes, working for the first time without his twin brother, Albert — is what it is.
It’s the kind of movie where the mayor’s a brute who conducts meetings with a shotgun on the coffee table.
It’s the kind of movie where his golden-boy adversary, played by Barry Pepper, is named Jack Valliant .
And it’s the kind of movie where, just outside a massive document-shredding operation, the bad guys leave pristine copies of key evidence laying out in the open beside a Dumpster.
You could spend hours wondering why, given the talents of everyone involved, “Broken City” isn’t any better than it is.
But, to paraphrase a far better tale of a different broken city, “Forget it, Jake, it’s January.”
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Christopher Lawrence is the film critic for the Las Vegas (NV) Review-Journal. Contact him at CLawrence@reviewjournal.com