Silver Screen: Broken City ***
Broken City is a Raymond Chandler homage dressed up in a tux and posed as a political thriller. Despite its veneer as an exposé of power and corruption at the highest levels of municipal government, it’s actually a pulpy little detective story that’s consistently entertaining if rarely surprising.
The prologue quickly sets up the lead character’s fall from grace. Marky Mark Wahlberg (without a single funky person, much less a bunch of them) is Billy Taggart, a cop booted from the force after a shooting that smacks of vigilante justice. The city’s eccentric blowhard of a mayor (Russell Crowe) helps suppress evidence that might have landed our man Taggart in jail for the killing, but mayor Hostetler is of the opinion that the crook Billy gunned down had it coming.
Seven years later, Billy is a washed-up gumshoe who even has his own gal Friday in plucky secretary Katy (Alona Tal). “Private detectives? Do they even have those anymore?” one characters wonders aloud in a cheeky bit of meta-commentary. But Broken City is a throwback in almost every way, so when Hostetler comes calling for a favor, of course Billy gets more than he bargained for. His assignment is to prove the mayor’s combative wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is having an affair, but when Billy catches the city’s first lady in a secret rendezvous with the campaign manager (Kyle Chandler) working for the mayor’s political rival (Barry Pepper), he finds himself caught up in a far more complex scandal.
You needn’t have seen too many detective movies to know that pretty soon poor Billy won’t be able to tell his friends from his enemies, that his past will come back to haunt him, and that the multi-billion-dollar land deal that is casually mentioned a few times in the first half hour will come into play. But what Broken City lacks in big twists it makes up for in some punchy dialogue from screenwriter Brian Tucker, abetted by solid performances from the likes of Chandler and Tal and supporting players James Ransone and Jeffrey Wright. Wahlberg is at his best playing characters who are in over their heads; his face is a natural combination of steely determination and mild confusion. Crowe doesn’t seem like he could get elected kangaroo catcher in Melbourne, but it’s at least an entertaining bit of miscasting.
Broken City’s biggest problem is that the city of the title is generic. Making it a nameless town has certain advantages, but director Allen Hughes (working without his brother Albert) fails to render it with any texture or grit, so the city takes on the artificial quality of a sprawling soundstage.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.