PLOT On the eve of a close election, the Mayor of New York (Russell Crowe) hires cop-turned-private eye Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) to investigate his wife’s (Catherine Zeta-Jones) suspected infidelity. But is she screwing someone else, or plotting to screw her husband out of re-election?
Broken City opens with a smoking gun, as a querium of cordite curls from the barrel of New York detective Billy Taggart’s sidearm, and a perp lies dead on the sidewalk of the Brooklyn project known as Brooklyn Village. Taggart is exonerated of any wrongdoing, but to calm public outcry over the office-involved shooting, the Mayor Hostetler asks him to hand in a badge for the greater good, promising to repay the favour in future. Seven years later, running for re-election, Hostetler hired Taggart, now a down-at-heel private eye, to follow his wife Cathleen, whom he suspects of adultery. Instead, Taggart uncovers corruption on a city-side scale, finding himself enmeshed in a tangled web of backroom deals, blackmail and murder.
Wahlberg’s unique brand of bland under-acting works best when he’s cast opposite a larger-than-life on-screen presence, whether it’s a talking teddy bear or Christian Bale going for broke. When he’s required to anchor a film, as here, it invariably runs adrift, leaving a vacuum at the centre where a leading man should be. Russell Crowe should be more than capable of holding up his end, but here, fake-tanned and with a schoolboy haircut, he makes hard work of a straightforward role, and it is only Zeta-Jones, as the Mayor’s long-suffering, hard-as-French-polished-nails wife, who seems willing to colour outside the lines.
Allen Hughes’ first film away from twin brother Albert wants to be a 21st century Chinatown, or perhaps a seventies political thriller, but even if Hughes had the chops of a Lumet or a Polanski – and he doesn’t – he is hobbled from the start by a screenplay which too often mistakes complications for depth, and exposition for revelations. Taggart is supposed to be out of his depth as his investigation takes him into the darkest recesses of political power, but as he peels back the layers of the mystery, it’s Hughes who seems to be in over his head, unable to weave the disparate plot strands into a coherent, satisfying whole.
VERDICT If this ‘power corrupts’ potboiler had been made in the 1990s – with, say, Andy Garcia, Gene Hackman and Kim Basinger – it would already have felt old-fashioned. Forget it, Jake, it’s no Chinatown. ★★