‘Broken City’: Broken screenplay dooms the film to failure
Directed by Allen Hughes
Written by Brian Tucker
Every review of Allen Hughes’ Broken City should point to the same scene as the first and clearest proof that it is a failed film: Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg), an ex-cop and private eye who has been on the wagon for seven years, gets drunk. Very drunk, like “throwing half-full bottles at passing cars” and “brawling on the sidewalk with total strangers” drunk. And then – as he is staggering into the subway – he is called away to the scene of a crime that he is completely wrapped up in. The entire crime-scene sequence is played as though Taggart is stone-cold sober, without even so much as a comment by a supporting character that Taggart smells like he’s been swimming in Jameson. If this were a movie in which Wahlberg were playing a supercop type, it might work, but this is not that sort of movie. Not even close.
This is a sprawling crime drama which would like us to believe that it’s taking place in the real New York City (although the film was shot on location in New Orleans), where everyone is morally compromised and it is nigh impossible to do the right thing. Sort of a mini-The Wire, or a modern-day L.A. Confidential, was probably intended when the project was conceived. However, The Wire lasted for five seasons and L.A. Confidential is close to three hours long; Broken City is trying to squeeze a comparable amount of plot into 109 minutes. The end result has to substitute bizarre quips for clever dialogue and exposition for character development, and the film suffers for it.
Taggart makes an ally of the mayor of New York (Russell Crowe) when accused of an unjust shooting, and the mayor calls him back years later with a favor: follow the mayor’s wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and find out who she is cuckolding him with. Because Taggart is a movie P.I., the case is not that simple, and the twists and turns come hot ‘n’ heavy in the film’s second half. Race, class, and homosexuality each has a chance to be an important aspect of this film, but none of them is developed enough, so in the end none of them is relevant.
Worse, Wahlberg is a big problem. In the first half of the film Taggart is portrayed as a total doormat, and Wahlberg sticks with it, letting the other actors in his scenes blow him away. But Taggart is called upon to assert himself in the second half of the movie without having hit any sort of personal nadir, so Wahlberg starts trying to dominate his scenes with no real reason why. In the end the supporting actors are the only ones who get any real chance to shine; in particular, the great Jeffrey Wright takes the second half of this film, puts it in his back pocket, and walks away with it.
It’s a shame to see such an awkward film coming from Allen Hughes, who with his brother Albert directed one of the ten best films of the 1990s in Menace II Society. Since then the brothers’ output has been spotty, but their last effort The Book of Eli had enough positives in it to suggest the future was still bright. Instead Albert wasn’t involved with Broken City at all, but maybe that was for the best. There may not be a filmmaker in Hollywood gifted enough to save this script.