“Are you dumb or Catholic?” someone sarcastically asks Billy Taggart, the protagonist of Broken City. Not sure of its religion, but, like Taggart, the film itself is definitely stupid: a reductive ad absurdum Urban Corruption for Dummies that could have passed muster in an era when the population at large was less politically engaged.
Disgraced due to an acquitted homicide, police detective-turned-private investigator Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) winds up taking a job for slimy NYC Mayor Hostetler (Russell Crowe) snooping on his potentially cuckolding wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Naturally, there’s a bigger story here: An election looms, someone turns up dead, and soon Taggart grows wise, if never quite smart, to the danger in which he’s embroiled.
Also like its protagonist, Broken City is capable of furtive flashes of intelligence that, when apparent, suggests it’s been underestimated. Say what you will about the simplistic writing, but underneath the skin-deep cynicism lurks something darker and more haunting. Crowe’s mayor is one-note sleazy, played with the lip-smacking, broad-accented hamminess that is the polar opposite of his eternally stiff Javert in the latest Les Mis movie. But even the good guys aren’t so good. Jeffrey Wright swings by as a pro-torture detective who’s evil, but for the right side. Hostetler’s noble if naïve opponent, seriously named Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper), might not have the strength to pull off a Cory Booker. Meanwhile, our hero is an ex-alkie hothead who falls off the wagon, alienates his longtime girlfriend and is introduced gunning down a perp in cold blood. The portrait of rot isn’t merely fashionable but buried in its DNA.
Broken City is the picture that signals the end, or at least the temporary split, of the Hughes Brothers, the filmmaking twins who’ve been a brand since 1993’s Menace II Society. Apparently, Albert Hughes was the one with show-offy camera techniques and the great music sense, and Allen Hughes, who helmed Brian Tucker’s silly script, is relatively staid, save an expressionistic drunk walk. But he clearly relishes in his protagonist’s brattish worldview–heightened by a happily engaged Marky Mark–even stopping the movie dead so he can attend his actress lady’s indie film debut and rant about metrosexuals. It’s a boorish, loutish personality, but a personality nonetheless in a genre too often interchangeable and zombified.