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Zimbio Review - 'Broken City,' a Throwback Corruption Thriller

(20th Century Fox)

The Bottom Line
Should you see it?

Broken City's plot may try your patience, but knots unravel and Russell Crowe has fun as NYC's most evil politician since Boss Tweed.
In Allen Hughes' Broken City, Russell Crowe is the Mayor of New York, Catherine Zeta-Jones is his wife, Barry Pepper is his opponent, and Mark Wahlberg is a private detective watching them all. Amid themes of economic struggle and corruption, Broken City tells a convoluted story that feels familiar. It has the shadowy murkiness of those John Grisham movies of the '90's, and, although the end is never in doubt, it boasts enough plot twists and turns to keep you interested, even if its star doesn't.

Wahlberg, who produced Broken City, is cast here in a classic Hollywood role: the private eye. Legends have been made by the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, and Jack Nicholson in The Maltese Falcon, Vertigo, and Chinatown. There's a legacy at stake here, but Wahlberg does little to fulfill his end of the bargain.

Detective Billy Taggert (Wahlberg) is on trial as Broken City begins. Accused of murdering a teen, he's acquitted due to insufficient evidence. In the aftermath, he meets with Mayor Nick Hostetler (Crowe) and Police Commissioner Fairbanks (Jeffrey Wright) who give him his walking papers and make it clear they withheld evidence that would've buried Taggert. The cop goes away quietly, and life goes on.

Flash forward seven years, Taggert is a struggling private eye, "I take pictures." He tells people casually. He's a good guy, taking cases on spec and keeping his nose clean for his gorgeous actress girlfriend (Natalie Martinez). Taggert hasn't touched a drink in years.

In the office, he verbally jousts with his young assistant, Katy (Alona Tal), as private eyes do, but Wahlberg struggles with the script's humor. The jokes fall flat, but the relationship is a cool homage to the genre. Private eyes still exist in 2013 and they still have beautiful assistants.

Broken City takes off when Taggert is summoned to the Mayor's office unexpectedly. Hostetler tasks him with finding his wife's lover and the P.I. asks no questions, pocketing a $25,000 advance. Of course, Taggert doesn't know the whole story. People die and the plot thickens. Billy loses his grip on his drinking, his relationship, but not the investigation. He vows revenge on the Mayor that set him up and unveils a dangeous web of corruption that will either put him in jail, or a body bag.

While Wahlberg struggles to create a charismatic portrait of Taggert, he excels with the role's physicality. One encounter late in the film is especially vivid, filled with the hard packing sounds of flesh on flesh. Wahlberg's private dick is a bruiser, not a wise-cracking Sam Spade. The film would've been smart to play more to his strengths.

The rest of the cast is actually kind of brilliant. Crowe trots out his thick New York accent from Cinderella Man and owns his scenes as the spray-tanned Mayor with the Cheshire grin. He gives a magnetic villainous performance, lying his way through every encounter and lending the character the gravity it needs to be believable. Zeta-Jones, although under-utilized, is Crowe's equal as his jaded wife. She's stunning, glamorous, and razor sharp in her few scenes. Other roles are filled admirably by Wright, as the no-nonsense commish; Pepper, as Hostetler's idealistic, but naive, political opponent; and Tal, who manages to give Katy an innocence that belies her sharp wit. All the characters have New York in common, and the cast is a fitting reflection of its setting.

The throwback feel of the film is likely due to director Hughes' old-school sensibilities. Broken City is his first solo project without his usual directorial partner, his brother, Albert (Menace II Society, Dead Presidents). The movie feels like it was made 20 years ago. The subject matter, the look and feel of the city, all recall films of that decade.

Interestingly, Hughes hasn't made a film set in the present since Menace II Society. It's not a bad thing, Broken City is old school and that's interesting. The script is the film's star. The lively mayoral debate between Crowe and Pepper is a major highlight and Taggert has a slew of compelling encounters as he navigates the world of Big Apple politics. Wahlberg underwhelms, but the rest of the cast is on point in the Broken City.

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