Largely due to its mediocre screenplay, Broken City emerges as a straightforward crime thriller with minimum thrill or suspense. Cluttered with lackluster subplots and unnecessary melodramatic scenes, Broken City feels more like a predictable, half-baked movie for vegging out rather than a clever crime thriller that astutely investigates a political scandal.
Detective Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) was exonerated of shooting a suspect in a rape and murder crime. Seven years later, Taggart has established a private investigation agency that mainly investigates cases of adultery. With the help of his supportive girlfriend, Natalie (Natalie Martinez), he has stayed clean and sober. Mayor Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe) hires Taggart to find the man who is having an affair with his wife, Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Taggart finds himself embroiled in a political scandal bigger than he had ever imagined and aims to understand the truth. Meanwhile, Hostetler is running for reelection against a new progressive candidate, Jack Valiant (Barry Pepper), who plans to bring genuine change for the underserved population of New York City.
The movie feels formulaic and even cliched because we have seen this premise before—a formerly disgraced detective attempts to redeem himself by discovering the truth and bringing justice to a troubled city. The protagonist, who first enters this contract for purely mercenary reasons, finds himself chosen to fight for a bigger cause than he had imagined. While the movie constantly moves forward and is occasionally gripping, it felt too much like a Hollywood movie, especially when Taggart takes ethically questionable actions, such as assaulting or nearly torturing people to get the information that he needs. It was surprising to see this form of torture in this movie, especially with the controversy surrounding torture in mass media.
In addition to relying on heightened sentimentality and drama, Broken City spells everything out in binary terms–the corrupt politician versus the clean newcomer who is willing to advocate for the downtrodden public. The debate scene between Valiant and Hotstetler felt extremely dumbed down. Moreover, the canned applause meant to represent the audience truly illustrated the public as easily manipulated and inane. For a film that claims to care about rebuilding a broken city, it showcases very little faith and belief in the power of the public to speak and think for themselves. This hackneyed Hollywood crime drama champions the power of the good cop to fight for the rest of the disempowered citizens.
Cashier’s checks, foul language, and guns are flying everywhere, but Broken City lacks that extra spark that distinguishes itself from other political dramas. Many of the subplots go unresolved and seem extraneous. For example, Taggart’s relationship with his girlfriend is so poorly developed that it seems to transition from a tight partnership to a nightmare in no time. The film clearly wants us to sympathize with Taggart, a man who chose to reform himself for his girlfriend, but his over-the-top and erratic antics makes it difficult to understand or tolerate him. These one dimensional character relationships makes it very hard for viewers to sustain any sort of emotional understanding of and investment with the characters.
The supporting cast’s talents are sorely underused in their one-dimensional roles. It would have been interesting to learn more about the stoic Police Commissioner (Jeffrey Wright), who silently monitors the actions of Hostetler and Taggart. However, his character is treated more as a plot device. Behind his passionate and incisive campaign, Jack Valiant is portrayed as a vulnerable man who needs the support of his staff, particularly his intelligent campaign manager (Kyle Chandler). Barry Pepper plays such a vibrant and charismatic politician that he clearly outshines Crowe’s sinister mayor. Both characters appeared more interesting and compelling compared to Wahlberg’s tough cop with a cause.
While this film seems to be more suited for watching on DVD than in theaters, those who enjoy police thrillers may enjoy the experience. Although it tends to get melodramatic and over-the-top, it is a relatively fast-paced, plot-driven movie that cuts to the chase in terms of action and mystery. For those who prefer character-driven and cerebral political thrillers, they may want to check out older classics such as All The President’s Men or The Manchurian Candidate.