Movie Review: ‘Broken City,’ Directed by Allen Hughes

January 17th, 2013

Barry Wetcher/20th Century Fox

Mark Wahlberg in “Broken City.”

After sundown the familiar, big, beautiful, soul-dirty town in “Broken City” looks as if it were built from shattered glass. That’s especially true from the air, where the director, Allen Hughes, likes to take a god’s-eye measure of what’s below, the camera gliding over the glittering lights and shadows as black as the abyss. This is a place so ominous that the sun never seems to shine even during the day, leaving the gray streets and people washed in an icy blue light. One glance and it’s obvious that this is New York, though it’s a city Mr. Hughes has painted a darker shade of noir.

Mr. Hughes has always been a noir kind of director, from his first movie, “Menace II Society,” to his most recent, “The Book of Eli.” Along the way his features — all except “Broken City” were directed with his twin brother, Albert — have shifted from youthful nihilism to pessimism to a less totalizing pessimism, one that leaves room for something approaching or at least nodding toward hope, change, possibility. The exits, in other words, are no longer completely blocked. Whether this reflects age, a philosophical shift or studio pressure, the movies feel less closed in than they once did. There’s plenty of bleak to go around in “Broken City,” yet there is also more tonal variation and a worldview that hews toward human complexity rather than toward comic-book Manichaeism.

The screenplay remains the weak link in Mr. Hughes’s work. But if you don’t listen to the dialogue too hard, if you tune out a bit and instead watch the screen — notice how the restless cameras prowl around the actors and how shards of bright color pierce the pooling black night — then “Broken City” satisfies like the solid B movie it is. Written by Brian Tucker, the story traces, if somewhat distractedly, the moral education of Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg), a cop who, shortly after the movie opens, shoots a man dead and is forced to turn in his badge. It’s the sort of blunt, early narrative shock, a triggering incident, as it were, that strongly suggests where the rest of the story will lead.

In “Broken City,” though, the question of whether Billy is a good or bad man, a decent or dirty lawman — and the equally important matter of whether the shooting was justified — hovers in the background like a half-finished thought. One reason is that Mr. Tucker, who’s also a playwright, thickens the plot of this, his first produced feature, with a larger-stakes corruption tale involving the mayor, Hostetler (Russell Crowe, miscast but charismatic), the mayor’s wife, Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones, classing up the joint nicely) and an assortment of courtiers and connivers, including a Machiavellian police commissioner, Fairbanks (Jeffrey Wright, bearded, bald and sly). Also stirring up trouble is a mayoral rival with wet, beseeching eyes and a cartoon name, Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper, very fine).

Much of the story takes place seven years after Billy has left the police force. Now he works as a private detective and keeps odd hours in his enviously situated Brooklyn office. His name is on the door, and there’s a pretty blonde, Katy (Alona Tal), taking his messages at a desk. Given the old-school setup, and the intimations of gumshoes and genres past, the blonde should be giving her boss the once over as she straightens the seams on her stockings. Mostly, while clearly soft on him, she just pleasantly nags Billy for not chasing down delinquent clients. He’s that type of guy, which is another reason that doubts about his character never loom especially large. Although, really, it’s Mr. Wahlberg’s native good-guy appeal that keeps doubts at bay.

With his muscled body, untroubled face and singsong Bostonese, Mr. Wahlberg was built to play regular, hard-working, light-thinking Joes who, even when they’re on the wrong side of the law, are never on the side of the damned. Unlike Mr. Crowe, whose peering, wary eyes always make it look as if he’s working an angle, sussing out the competition (and co-stars) to gain an advantage, Mr. Wahlberg often looks almost surprised by what’s happening around him. That may not always be a useful quality for a detective, but it can work well for a filmmaker and an ethically and narratively challenged protagonist. In “Broken City” Billy is always lagging behind events and other people, running into a scene after a deadly shot has been fired, misinterpreting gestures and making missteps that only make him vulnerable.

There are not many surprises in “Broken City,” despite its puddling, sometimes muddling mysteries. This is a story, after all, about power and its abuse in the city, and eight million of these have been told before. Mr. Hughes tells this latest iteration with characteristic technical virtuosity, and while he’s overly fond of circling camera movements, the silky, gyrating choreography of the cinematography does create a sense of a spinning web that works reasonably well. His visual choices can feel borrowed and clichéd, but his regard for beauty often compensates for his blunders, as does the sturdy, reliable appeal of another story of good and evil, men and women, light and dark, glass and steel, sex and power. As it turns out, there are eight million and one stories in the naked city.

“Broken City” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Adults behaving badly.

Broken City

Opens on Friday nationwide.

Directed by Allen Hughes; written by Brian Tucker; director of photography, Ben Seresin; edited by Cindy Mollo; music by Atticus Ross, Claudia Sarne and Leo Ross; production design by Tom Duffield; costumes by Betsy Heimann; produced by Randall Emmett, Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson, Arnon Milchan, Teddy Schwarzman, Mr. Hughes and Remington Chase; released by 20th Century Fox. Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes.

WITH: Mark Wahlberg (Billy Taggart), Russell Crowe (Mayor Nicolas Hostetler), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Cathleen Hostetler), Jeffrey Wright (Colin Fairbanks), Barry Pepper (Jack Valliant), Kyle Chandler (Paul Chandler), Alona Tal (Katy) and Natalie Martinez (Natalie).

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