'Broken City': Allen Hughes gets out of movie jail
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
There's a distinct but not entirely displeasing whiff of anachronism to "Broken City," the new urban drama starring Mark Wahlberg and Russell Crowe. The story of corruption and criminality at the highest levels of municipal government and the striving underlings who are forced to do the ill-bidding of their bosses has its vision fixed in so many genre conventions that it makes Abel Ferrara's "King of New York" look positively futuristic. And "King of New York," made in 1990, is now old enough to drink.
Wahlberg plays Billy Taggart, a tough cop who puts down both the badge and the bottle after gunning down a vicious rapist under circumstances of perhaps dubious legality, procedure-wise. His actions are praised by New York's slick man-of-the-people posing mayor Hostetler, played by Crowe, and deplored by up-and-coming police bureaucrat Fairbanks. Seven years later, Taggart's eking out a living as a camera in the bedroom private eye, in a static relationship with the woman whose sister's death he helped avenge, and bantering with a sassy but worshipful female assistant. An Irish cop with a penchant for the bottle, a power-hungry politico, a wise-cracking female assistant ... you're getting the idea. This is stuff that wouldn't be out of place in a sale at the Warner Archive. Things get knottier when the mayor gives Taggart a too-juicy assignment on the eve of a major election: investigate the adultery of his disdainful, icy-seeming wife, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones. What he turns up is too good to be true: a seeming affair between the mayor's wife and his rival's campaign manager (Kyle Chandler). The operative words are "too good to be true," as the real story is in a stinking-to-high-heaven real estate deal that aims to, among other things, demolish the housing project where Taggart took out that rapist all those years ago.
The elliptical trajectory of the narrative, concocted by screenwriter Brian
Tucker (this is his first credited script) is a little on the overly tidy side.
And the movie's revelation that even its good guys have their dirty little
secrets to hide is not exactly a jaw-dropper. But the pleasures the movie offers
in its old-school way are not entirely insubstantial. Wahlberg's a defter hand
with dialogue scenes than he's often given credit for, and his verbal spars with
Crowe, who's in his understated pit bull mode throughout, are good crackling
fun. Director Allen Hughes has, it seems, been in feature film jail for over ten
years (his last film, co-directed with brother Albert, was 2001's "From Hell;"
Albert made his comeback to the big screen with 2010's "The Book of Eli"), and
that's perhaps why the movie plays it relatively safe with respect to visuals.
He does do some distinctive work with the visual contrasts of life as it's lived
in the city's underbelly versus its penthouses, and declines to go overboard
with the frantic cutting during the movie's infrequent action sequences. And he
keeps the emotions seething in the confrontations between principles. All of the
characters have a lot to lose, until they don't (the movie handles Taggart's
drinking issues in a way that's almost diametrically opposed to the recent
"Flight," almost showing the character's relation to booze as his path to facing
the truth, not avoiding it; difficult to explain without a spoiler, but you'll
see if you see it), and Hughes makes sure that each scene keeps sight of that.
Which makes "Broken City" a reasonably engaging hour and forty at the movies,
even if you think you've seen much of it before.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.