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Entries in Broken City [2013] (1)

Wednesday
Jan092013

Broken City (2013)

All Snore, No Core

On Sunday night, I experienced A-list celebrity power firsthand. Mark Wahlberg and director Allen Hughes dropped by Chicago's Kerasotes ICON theatre to press the flesh before an early screening of their new movie, Broken City. My friend Neal and I spent over an hour people-watching, as an ecstatic mob of people answered trivia questions, waved hand-made signs, and debated whether to stuff-surf their vintage Fear DVDs or glossy photos from Ted over the rising human tide once Marky Mark showed up.

About twenty minutes before the screening, a DJ announced that Wahlberg was on his way upstairs. Everyone's attention turned from the roped-off red-carpet area towards the escalators. For awhile, I couldn't make out the actor's face, but his perfect hair bobbed up and down in the distance. I was struck by the way in which people were drawn to him--not just leaning in for pictures or a quick scribble, but physically attracted to his body like a swarm of mobile flesh magnets.

Hurricane Wahlberg swirled towards me, and every molecule of free space collapsed as if the room were a lobby-sized vacuum-storage bag. Seconds later, our faces were inches from one another. I had nothing to say, and no ability to grab my camera. So I shrugged and half-smiled, and then he was gone-- whisked sharply to the left by security and his screaming fandom chariot.

Had Broken City been a quarter as compelling as its star's entrance, I might be able to recommend it. As it stands, the warning signs you or I might have felt while watching the trailer are, sadly, indicators of a so-so film. From that creeping "I hope they didn't give away everything in the previews" sensation (they did) to the January release date (never a good sign for an "issues" drama involving so many heavy-hitters), Hughes's deceptively empty thriller wants to be Vertigo, but plays like a middling Law & Order episode.

Wahlberg plays Billy Taggart, an NYC cop on trial for shooting a Latino teenager to death. Mayor Hostetler (Russell Crowe) and Police Chief Fairbanks (Jeffrey Wright) quickly bury evidence that Taggart executed the teen as revenge for raping and murdering his friend's sister. In exchange for his freedom, Taggart agrees to step down from the force--but not before accepting Hostetler's eternal gratitude for bringing "justice" to his fine city.

Seven years later, Taggart is in dire straits. His private-investigation service is on the rocks, and he's forty grand away from having to shut down. In swoops the mayor with a fifty-thousand-dollar PI job: he suspects his wife Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones) of having an affair, a fact that must be verified and dealt with before the following week's election. Billy takes the case, and uses his keen detective skills to solve what turns out to be straight-up infidelity. He collects his check, and heads off into the sunset with his beautiful actress girlfriend, Natalie (Natalie Martinez).

I'm kidding, of course. After a beautifully simple, character-driven setup, Broken City devolves into a flashy conspiracy film in which friends turn out to be enemies, enemies turn out to be good guys, and good guys either turn up dead or devastated. The main problem is that Hughes and first-time screenwriter Brian Tucker pull a mid-movie bait-and-switch, in which all of the engrossing, snappy dialogue is abandoned in favor of superfluous plot pile-ons, predictable action scenes, and so many names flying about that the climactic revelation is nearly impossible to follow--much less care about.

It's a shame, too, because the film looks great. As much as I hate the cliche of a movie's setting becoming a "character", in this case it's true. Hughes, cinematographer Ben Seresin, and production designer Tom Duffield show off the Big Apple with great affection, not only providing lavish shots of famous exteriors, but also imbuing everything from Hostetler's office to the end of a hotel bar with a distinct, hard-to-pinpoint "New York" vibe: lavish, lived-in, comfortable, and somehow menacing. In the first half of the film, I had as much fun watching the characters' surroundings as listening to their scheming.

Unfortunately, Broken City suffers from a recent movie epidemic, which has plagued films as diverse as Jack Reacher and Step Up: Revolution: all of the scheming--and attendant murder, intrigue, seduction, and pummeling--are in service of a lame reel estate swindle. I won't go into it, because you're probably already tired. Suffice it to say, I've yet to encounter a recent "thriller" that was sexy or interesting enough to sustain audience interest once the conspiracy was revealed to involve a crooked land deal. Perhaps if Hughes and Tucker had spent less time in posh surroundings and more in the endangered slums that Hostetler and a sleazy business partner (Griffin Dunne, terrific and tragically wasted here) have their eyes one, the stakes would have felt more substantial.

Instead, we're left with performances that might have been great in the hands of a better writer, and two hours of loose threads that, sadly, feel like they are three cuts away from an Oscar-worthy edit. Wahlberg, Crowe, and Wright bring just the right amount of zing to their characters until the script strands them with nothing to do but crawl to the end credits. Barry Pepper surprised the hell out of me as Hostetler's mayoral opponent by creating what may be a brand-new archetype: the bleeding-heart, millionaire douchebag. I was never sure where his character was going--normally a compliment, but considering the film's uneven tone and sporadically dropped themes, I wonder if this was a happy accident caused by great acting and unfocused writing. 

This same lack of purpose also robs a triumphantly tragic ending of its impact. In a better film, Taggart's grand sacrifice would have been the capper to a nicely understated redemption tale. Instead, you're less likely to root for the hero than to get hung up on what the pre-climax's ten minute mayoral debate scene had to do, really, with anything else in the film.* Just as I'm left to wonder why a movie with such great talent behind it requires drive-by promotion in Chicago on a Sunday night. Like Hurricane Wahlberg, I have a feeling Broken City will breeze in and out of theatres next week, leaving audiences half-smiling and shrugging in its insignificant wake.

*Yes, I know why Hughes and Tucker included it--and you will, too, if you watch this thing--but there's no reason the scene couldn't have been about seven minutes shorter. And, no, I didn't time the debate, but it drags almost as much as Michael Parks's interminable sermon in Red State.