Let us mourn anew the death of Sidney Lumet, the master filmmaker behind such classic, New York movies as the gritty “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Serpico” and “Prince of the City.” His is a voice that is sorely missed in American movies, never more so than when we get subjected to something like “Broken City,” a movie with Lumet-ian aspirations which, like the corrupt NYC mayor at its center, can barely handle the weight of its own ambitions.
First-time screenwriter Brian Tucker’s script starts strong, laying the groundwork for what feels like a wonderfully labyrinthine web where corruption and deceit meet personal weaknesses and political hubris, but by the film’s rushed and sloppy third act, the whole thing collapses into a very familiar and not particularly compelling heap.
“Broken City” opens with New York cop Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) gunning down a teenager in a housing project; protesters are convinced that the shooting was murder, but mayor Nick Hostetler (Russell Crowe) and chief of police Carl Fairbanks (Jeffrey Wright) suppress evidence damning to Billy. Cleared of charges, the officer is then promptly sacked from the NYPD.
Seven years later, Billy is peeping in windows as a private detective specializing in infidelity cases when Hizzoner calls him up. With the election coming up in a few weeks, the mayor asks Billy to track down the man having an affair with the city’s first lady, Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones). After tailing her a few days, Billy catches her having rendezvous, first in a public park and then later at a Long Island beach house, with Paul (Kyle Chandler) — who just happens to be the campaign manager for Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper), the mayor’s opponent.
Soon, there’s murder, and a possible frame-up, and lurking in the background is the mayor’s shady deal regarding the sale of that same housing project where Billy shot the teen, and as “Broken City” lays out the characters and their motivations and secrets, the movie promises a whiz-bang climax that never happens.
Instead, director Allen Hughes (working for the first time without his brother Albert behind the camera) wastes our time with pointless subplots — you could completely excise Billy’s wife Natalie (Natalie Martinez) and her mini-dramas without affecting the story in the slightest –and evidence that all but literally falls into our hero’s lap.
Wahlberg tends to be more interesting in his “one for me” movies than in his big-studio “one for them” projects, but even though “Broken City” falls into the latter category, he’s at least making an effort to put some life into this conflicted ex-cop who’s being buffeted about by forces beyond his ken. Overall, it’s a strong ensemble, with Crowe in particular relishing the larger-than-life qualities of this ruthless political animal.
There’s a weird subtext of homophobia making its way through the movie, from an extraneous gay plot twist to discomfort over metrosexuals and “fags” to a character using “Cross-dresser!” as a term of disparagement. All this in a movie where the wife of the mayor of New York City gives a rousing speech about marriage equality to the Human Rights Campaign, mind you. None of it feels germane, and it mostly plays as awkward and anachronistic.
Had the script gone through a few more drafts, “Broken City” might have been a real contender of a political conspiracy thriller. As is, however, it could barely be elected dogcatcher.