Sometimes, having the right ingredients isn’t enough. Throwing together a couple of name actors in a situation their résumés say they should be comfortable in doesn’t necessarily translate to cinema gold. Take, for example, the new crime thriller, Broken City. Principles Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe and Catherine Zeta-Jones all have experience with these sorts of things. Wahlberg did some of his best work in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. Crowe made his bones in Hollywood with the likes of L.A. Confidential and The Insider. And Zeta-Jones began to be considered as a serious actress when she showed up in Traffic. All of that should add up to a gritty, well-worn feel to director Allen Hughes’ sprawling new film. Instead, the narrative sets up too much intrigue without enough payoff, wasting efforts that get lost in a morass of loose ends and ambiguity.
It’s hard to trust Russell Crowe at this point in his career. He’s no longer the sure bet he was in the early 2000s, when he was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar three years in a row. For every Gladiator, there is too much fare like State of Play, where he looks like a man reaching for the glory of yesteryear. In Broken City, as Mayor Hostetler, he is neither charming nor menacing enough to reflect the dichotomy the script seems to suggest he should be. He shows flashes of both, but as the mouthpiece for a cynical time, he lacks bombast, and feels more like a pawn than a power broker. It’s difficult to tell whether he could have done more with the material—Brian Tucker’s script doesn’t completely impress or disappoint—but the famously Method actor studied a number of corrupt New York politicians in his preparation for the role, and the result is predictably muddled.
Wahlberg’s tortured ex-cop Billy Taggart is a different story. The vast ocean of influences in his backstory should be drowning him, or at least have his head barely above water. Instead, he plays it with a detached cool, wisecracking and rarely passionate about anything. Fell off the wagon? No big deal. Lost your girlfriend of seven years? Shrug of the shoulders, on with the day. The role doesn’t seem like much of a stretch for Wahlberg, and perhaps that’s why we don’t reach with him towards his goal, though admittedly, his goals are never exactly clear. He dislikes corruption but seems to engage in it rather easily, continually subverting his character’s moral compass. There’s a richness to be mined there, questions about how the good compromise themselves to battle their demons, both internal and external. But that avenue is never really traveled down, save for a political debate that does nothing but frustrate due to a lack of answers (and spoil the efforts of the normally excellent Barry Pepper).
Crumbling twin pillars of this broken city aside, there are several other aspects that undermine a story that could have been great. Ben Seresin’s cinematography lavishes visual praise on the Big Apple, but is at times jarringly incongruous, blending the iconic skylines with strangely chosen angles and shaky handheld work that take us out of the story, rather than enhancing it. The women in Broken City are little more than token encouragement or deterrent, never getting a foothold in a metropolis among men whose grasp is constantly slipping. But the most damaging aspect of the film is the editing. It can’t be an easy task to corral storylines that include a botched undercover assignment, political misconduct, an election, several affairs, addiction and a shady real estate deal. Even the most capable of hands might have cut too much or too little. Whatever the case, the film feels overstuffed and yet unsatisfying, with critical details revealed almost as afterthoughts, which in turn makes the pacing seem an afterthought, as well. Broken City starts and sputters, never blazing a clear path to the redemption for which its characters yearn. All the ingredients are here, but everything just ends up half baked.
Director: Allen Hughes
Writer: Brian Tucker
Starring: Russell Crowe, Mark Wahlberg, Catherine Zeta-Jones
Release Date: Jan. 18, 2013