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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Review: Broken City

Tonight, I was fortunate enough to be asked by my good friend Tony to join him at an advance screening of the new Allen Hughes film Broken City. Allen Hughes is best known for his work with his brother Albert on films like From Hell and Menace II Society. Neither film being a masterpiece of the form, they have displayed some efforts towards competent, if unspectacular, film-making. Unfortunately, Broken City fares far worse and often teeters into the realm of unmitigated disaster.

Seven years after murdering a young suspect in cold blood, disgraced New York detective Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) works as a private investigator, taking pictures of spouses caught in flagrante delicto with mistresses at the behest of their partners. Despite his poor business plan for collecting payment, he is able to have a somewhat healthy relationship with his actress girlfriend Natalie (Natalie Martinez) and an able assistant in Katy (Alona Tal). His life changes when Mayor Hostetler (Russell Crowe) hires him to investigate his wife's (Catherine Zeta-Jones) possible indiscretions, which are creating a potential distraction for him in his tight mayoral race against Councilman Jack Valliant (Berry Pepper). Rather predictably, things are not what they seem, and one set of pictures and a murder later, it goes downhill for all involved.

On paper, Broken City should work. It has a surprisingly strong cast, including smaller roles for Jeffrey Wright and Kyle Chandler, and a fairly tried and true premise of the "bad cop kicked off the force tries to make good". The script, written by Brian Tucker, is the biggest obstacle for success. Characters are constantly spitting out expository ridden dialogue, whether natural sounding or not and so many situations within the film are based around contrivances that are convenient to the plot and strike a false tone. The initial set-up of the film is appealing enough, and when Taggart is in the midst of his work as a PI, there's even a nice sense of excitement that crops up now and again. One particularly workable scene, where he's tailing the mayor's wife to determine who she may be having an affair with propped up some level of my interest. But the moment the second act of the film kicks in and the major conflict rears its head, the script falls apart.

The failing has its root in two different elements. In the first, as a subplot to the main storyline, we learn of Taggart's jealous relationship with Natalie in the lead-up the premiere of her "indie film debut" (which I highlight as the script really wants you to know she's an indie actress). This B plot simply doesn't work through a combination of bad writing and borderline laughable acting, particularly by Martinez, that seems more suitable for a Lifetime film than a major motion picture. The second issue being the inevitable twist that comes by the third act, through a variety of contrivances and characters magically being in the right place at the right time; Taggart learns that what he was hired for by the Mayor has much more nefarious ends. This twist is pure hokum and nonsensical, particularly based on evidence given to the audience earlier in the film as a red herring. There's nothing more insulting than a film that treats its audience as idiots, and unfortunately Broken City does this in spades. Allen Hughes does little to help the effort here as his shooting style consists of long, ponderous unearned shots of Taggart looking wistful around his native city combined with over the top Bourne-style shakey cam for every action sequence. As his first effort without his brother, Hughes needed to exert a stronger hand over what made it to print, instead he aimed for standard pop-corn faire and fell a good deal below that.

Performance-wise, the film is all over the map. Wahlberg can be good in the right role, as seen in films like Boogie Nights, Three Kings, and The Departed, sadly this is not one of his finer showings. Wahlberg simply is unable to sell Taggart's inner conflict, and certain tough guy lines come across as unintentionally comedic. Crowe looks like he's having fun as Hostetler, and he's able to produce a nice bit of menace in particular scenes, but by the end of the film his scenery-chewing and accent are so grating you'll wish he could have been reined in a bit. Pepper, Wright and Zeta-Jones are competent, if unmemorable as they try to essay out Tucker's ham-fisted dialogue. It's especially disappointing that Zeta-Jones' return to the big screen after such a long absence had to be so wasted. Chandler, who since his lead performance in Super 8, has made a few smaller appearances in films like Argo and the upcoming (to Atlanta) Zero Dark Thirty, has a few nice scenes with Wahlberg and Pepper that work very well. While his role is small, its certainly where the film feels the most natural. It's no surprise that with his exit, so went the quality of the film.

It's often said that the first few months of the year are when studios look to quietly dump films that they know won't make a solid profit any other time when competition is greater in the summer, and awards-bait rules the fall and early winter. Broken City is certainly one of these quickly tossed off efforts, barring a scene or two that works well, is a waste of time for all involved.

I give it 1 out of 4 stars (or a D- if you prefer)

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1 comment:

  1. Mayor Hostetler (Russell Crowe) fears he might lose his post to rival candidate Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper). Valliant is hell-bent on exposing Hostetler's alleged real estate scams. Along with political problems, the mayor also faces marital discord. He is convinced but needs proof that will expose his wife's alleged adultery.


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