Friday, January 18, 2013

Broken City

Unclean Hands And Scarred Souls In Hughes' Big Apple

Mark Wahlberg as Billy Taggart in Allen Hughes' political drama "Broken City".  20th Century Fox

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, January 18, 2013

Allen Hughes embarks on his first solo directing feature with "Broken City", a series of slow-moving Big Apple stories on a political landscape.  Mr. Hughes ably uses stylish cinematic overtures to build an impressive scene of opening torment for former NYPD police officer Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg), whom seven years later is a private investigator on the payroll of incumbent New York mayor Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe), who has hired Taggart to spy on the mayor's wife Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones). 

"Broken City" is about two men: one clinging to power, the other a beneficiary of a system that power provides.  A recovering alcoholic, Billy chases down deadbeat clients with mixed results.  Meanwhile, in the heat of a tight mayoral election, an embattled Hostetler has to fight off a rakish challenger in Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper), his formidable campaign manager (Kyle Chandler, "Argo", "Zero Dark Thirty") and a police commissioner (Jeffrey Wright) with whom he has a tense relationship. 

The two men are contrasting personalities; Billy talks and his musculature suggests.  He hits hard, while Hostetler uses psychology and power to reign in potential foes.  Videotape indicts several key participants in "Broken City", a film about performance and capture.  Billy's camera captures cheaters in the act; other cameras suggest or prompt allegations of cheating.  The cameras don't necessarily lie in "Broken City", but sometimes the participants do.

Mr. Hughes gets the atmosphere of New York City right, covering a small few of its eight million stories to make "Broken City" interesting, though there's little mining beyond the usual clichés and red herrings to make the film any more than a worthwhile or satisfying exercise.  There's undue focus on Billy's troubles with his actress wife Natalie (Natalie Martinez).  Such side dramas unnecessarily pad a film that should have focused more on the complexities of the relationships between officials barely above chicanery and shenanigans.  Every character performs in Mr. Hughes' film, and trademark New York sarcasm and suspicion is flaunted.

What's missing from "Broken City" are harder-edged New York players, the kind that unapologetically lined Sidney Lumet's teeming New York police dramas.  This elegant, occasionally opulent film is only temporarily interrupted and blunted by a harder, anomalous edge: a local housing estate named Bolton Gardens, whose long-suffering working-class tenants have been scarred by some of the film's initial events.  Each of the characters has been scarred in one way or another.  None has unclean hands, but Mr. Hughes and screenwriter Brian Tucker don't appear to be able to tell any of their interlocking stories with sufficient conviction or appreciable depth. 

For all its ardor, "Broken City" wanders, and Mr. Crowe's Hostetler, purportedly its focus, drifts offscreen for significant minutes.  Mr. Wahlberg easily attacks his role, a sturdy reliable in films like this.  He's become an actor some take for granted, and when he gets tougher acting challenges, he will rise to the occasion in profound ways.  Ms. Zeta-Jones is icily effective in the small role she has but there's little larger purpose or investment for her character.  I wished Cathleen had wielded more of the power she suggests.  (Compare Ms. Zeta-Jones' character to the one Susan Sarandon played in "Arbitrage" last year.)

Overall, "Broken City" is a moody drama highlighted and invigorated by the outlaw character brilliantly played by Mr. Wright, a smart, cynical New York police commissioner who operates as a buttress exposing and mocking the film's relatively safe grounding.  As the film's lone free agent he sneers at its troubled players and winks at the audience, slyly rebuking the staid affairs and making moviegoers laugh in the process.  Admittedly Mr. Wright, a guilty pleasure here as Carl Fairbanks, is the sole entertaining part of "Broken City" -- aside from Billy's reliable investigation assistant Katy (Alona Tal) and Mr. Crowe's character's John Boehner tan -- a comedy unto itself.

Also with: James Ransone, Griffin Dunne, Michael Beach.

"Broken City" opened today across the U.S. and Canada.  The film is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence.  The film's running time is one hour and 49 minutes.  

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