The opening shot of Allen Hughes’ political thriller Broken City is difficult to shake, of Mark Wahlberg, wearing a scraggly beard, holding a smoking gun and staring at the corpse of a young man he just shot at close range, the circumstances of which won’t be entirely known until much later on in the story.
What’s revealed immediately is that it’s not looking good for Wahlberg’s New York cop Billy Taggart, who may be brought up on charges relating to some evidence that reportedly proves it wasn’t a clean shooting. However, Taggart has a friend in Mayor Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe), who suppresses the evidence in exchange for Billy’s badge.
Seven years later, Hostetler is gearing up for the impending Mayoral election, where he is threatened by a slick, optimistic, Obama-like candidate named Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper). Billy is meanwhile working as a PI on the straight-and-narrow, though that all changes when he is called in by Hostetler to tail his wife, Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who he is convinced is having an affair. Soon enough, Billy gets in over his head and can’t figure out which way is up, implicated in a conspiracy that threatens to dredge up all those unsavoury details of his past.
Though rooted in a lot of familiar elements – specifically the recovering alcoholic cop racked by guilt and the slick, shady politician at the forefront – Broken City is nevertheless a tightly-wound thriller procedural, powered by Hughes’ sumptuous visual direction, Atticus Ross’ pulsing electronic score and solid performances from the skilled cast throughout. Just when it begins to feel too familiar, another twist is sprung on the viewer, and plenty of the peripheral elements hew pleasantly far away from expectation. Billy’s relationship with his stunning assistant, Katy (Alona Tal), is especially strong, sidestepping the potential for a romantic entanglement in favour of a deeply-felt friendship and admiration, much like we were used to in films of the early noir period.
What really works against the film, however, isn’t its structural or thematic familiarity, but its occasional dalliance with contrivance; characters who shouldn’t be spotted together meet in broad daylight, while Billy manages to acquaint himself with one central figure on a train-ride with some ridiculously coincidental shtick. If you can see past this and some of the signposted dialogue – if you don’t know how it’s going to end, you haven’t been paying attention – then the ride does prove a slickly entertaining, refreshingly unsentimental one given the quiet pathos it shoots for. Much of the fun is in seeing just how deep the rabbit-hole goes, as the net draws ever-tighter, while some of its bizarre quirks – namely an odd sub-plot involving Billy’s girlfriend starring in an indie film – ensure it has just enough edge to distinguish itself.
Hughes has certainly picked his cast wisely; for starters, Zeta-Jones could do the sexy femme fatale waltz in her sleep, and here she’s effective enough despite a lack of screen time. Similarly, Crowe is barely in the second act of the film, his toxic presence instead lingering like a spectre while Marky Mark gets to stand at the forefront as the frazzled cop he has perfected in countless films of varying quality. Perhaps the best of show, however, are Jeffrey Wright as the slippery Comissioner Fairbanks, and Barry Pepper as Hostetler’s championed opponent, whose rat-a-tat dialogue exchange with Crowe during a Mayoral debate sequence is arguably the film’s highlight.
This is a beautifully-shot film that bristles with energy even as it pores over familiar plot beats, finding quiet, smouldering power in one man’s quest to assuage his guilt and find redemption. See through the contrivances and Broken City is taut, potent genre entertainment, girded by a stellar cast.
Broken City is in US cinemas today, and is released in the UK on March 1st.
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