Directing a film for the first time without his brother Albert, Allen Hughes continues the siblings’ tradition of technical savvy on the political thriller Broken City,yet again proves unable to evade an old nemesis. As with the brothers’ From Hell and The Book of Eli, Hughes takes a promising premise and fortifies it with a name cast and crisp visuals, only to have it fall prey to the project’s weakest link: its script. His players do the best they can with the material at hand, but Brian Tucker’s sloppy storytelling handicaps their efforts, numbing what should be tense encounters and stunning revelations.
Trapped in such dismal confines, what on paper must have read as a solid political corruption face-off between New York Mayor Nicholas Hostettler (Russell Crowe) and cop-turned-P.I. Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) starts off with plenty of potential. Tasked with unearthing the gent who’s sleeping with the mayor’s wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Billy’s recruitment chat with Hostettler and his initial sleuthing provide some solid cat-and-mouse tension. Cooly tracking the suspected cuckolder, who just so happens to be the mayor’s opponent’s campaign manager (Kyle Chandler), Billy engages in artful verbal deception with his target, foreshadowing fireworks to come.
Just as the intrigue starts to boil, however, Broken City takes an unfortunate turn at the premiere of Kiss of Life,an independent feature starring Billy’s girlfriend Natalie (Natalie Martinez). Seated in the audience, watching the goofy movie that was apparently made on a cell phone, Billy incredulously looks on while Natalie has graphic sex with her co-star. The film-within-the-film approach is one that’s worked before, most recently in Burn After Reading’s Dermot Mulroney-Claire Danes rom-com farce Coming Up Daisy, but typically to serve an ironic or humorous purpose. Broken City, though,is too ineptly serious for Kiss of Life to be anything but a distraction, and combined with Wahlberg’s laughable open-mouthed staring, the film unravels.
So distraught at the afterparty that he ends his seven-year temperance, Billy goes on a messy bender through the streets of Manhattan only to magically achieve sobriety with a call from his former NYPD partner (Michael Beach). At the scene of the crime to which he’s summoned, Billy has an epiphany, switches allegiances, and within seconds is doing dirty work for the Police Commissioner (Jeffrey Wright). Raising all sorts of unintended question marks, this rickety turning point undoes any sense of investment in what began as a decent story and heralds a bizarro version of the film’s opening act. Riding on dud one-liners and increasingly meaningless stakes, the film limps directionless to the finish line, dragging the corpses of its hoodwinked cast with it. That’s a shame for a project that has numerous strong pieces, but with a script and director incapable of fitting them together, a disaster is all it can be.
Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence.
Broken City is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.