No witness protection program
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, January 18, 2013
Aside from the Oscar holdovers in early January, this month’s film releases typically are a sad lot. You may want to account for low expectations, but the crime drama “Broken City” turns out to be much better -- and funnier and more suspenseful -- than both trailer and release date portend.
Director Allen Hughes, who usually works with his twin brother, Albert, on such movies as “Dead Presidents” and “Menace II Society,” may be flying solo, but he brings all the intensity of his past features.
Mark Wahlberg plays Billy Taggart, a New York cop forced to hand in his badge and gun after being involved in the shooting death of a teenager. The mayor (Russell Crowe) tells Billy his actions were heroic. But the city’s residents are outraged over the violence, and Billy’s law enforcement career must end. Seven years after his resignation, the former police officer makes a living tailing and photographing cheating spouses. It’s not much, but it pays the bills, at least when Billy’s clients remember to pay, which isn’t often.
So $50,000 for an easy job might seem like a god-sent windfall. Just before Election Day, Mayor Hostetler -- running neck and neck with his opponent, Jack Valliant -- contacts Billy. It appears that the mayor’s wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is cheating on him, and he wants pictures and information (including some unsavory details) about the man who’s cuckolding him.
The job, of course, is not quite as straightforward as it seems; it’s a mere thread in a web of political corruption revolving around the campaign and the sale of a public housing complex linked to Billy’s mysterious past. Billy could just walk away, $50,000 richer, but that would be a lot less thrilling than taking on the creepy, orange-faced, misogynistic and homophobic mayor.
This villain, not to mention the crooked story trajectory, could come across as over-the-top, but a few elements help ground the film, not the least of which is humor.
As Wahlberg demonstrated in “The Departed,” the man can deliver a solid punch line. Even when his character seems to take himself too seriously, the movie generally doesn’t, going so far as winking at the audience when Billy becomes fed up with the confusion of neverending plot twists.
Thankfully, most of those sharp turns develop organically, adding intrigue without outlandishness. One of the twists revolves around Billy’s nature. Is he a protagonist worth pulling for? The full picture of Billy’s intentions and actions the night of the career-ending shooting are revealed slowly over the course of the film, and that mystery serves as an effective hook.
The cast across the board feels expertly chosen. Crowe proves he’s an especially effective villain when singing isn’t involved, and Wahlberg lands his zingers with a nice deadpan. But the ancillary characters really stand out, buoyed by such actors as Jeffrey Wright as the standoffish, all-business police commissioner and Barry Pepper as Jack Valliant, the floppy-haired, Harvard-educated mayoral contender.
The film gets bogged down with unnecessary complications in Billy’s love life and intimations of a budding relationship with his spitfire assistant. And there are a few too-convenient plot developments -- a nefarious corporation should know to shred its documents. But overall, this is an entertaining diversion, and not just compared with other first-month releases.
Contains crude language, violence and sexual situations.