Allen Hughes’ Broken City has been taking a beating from critics, mostly being deemed as too predictable. And while I can’t disagree with this assessment, it also seems to miss what Broken City is really all about. While I rarely like throwing this term around, Hughes’ film is the epitome of “good for what it is.” In fact, it might be a bit better than that as a professionally crafted piece of hard-boiled neo-noir. With a strong director and an ace cast — including Mark Wahlberg making up for a string of dreadful movies — Broken City certainly isn’t the last word in originality, but it’s professional and slick — two things that most movies don’t have the sense to be.
The film follows Billy Taggart (Wahlberg), an ex-New York City cop who had to leave the force after he murdered an alleged rapist. Seven years after this, Billy is a private eye with a shaky practice and a would-be actress girlfriend (Natalie Gonzalez). But Billy gets a break when New York’s Mayor Hostetler (Russell Crowe) — knee deep in a hotly contested campaign against an up-and-coming idealist (Barry Pepper) — hires him to look into his own wife’s (Catherine Zeta-Jones) suspected infidelity. Billy soon sets out on the case, but in the grand tradition pulp fiction, no one and nothing is what it seems as the plot twists and turns on itself, and our hero finds himself falling deeper and deeper down the convoluted rabbit hole of deceit, murder and violence.
Much of what happens — especially if you’ve watched the trailer — can be seen coming from the opening act. But this doesn’t mean the film is devoid of surprises since Hughes has assembled a movie that acts more as a character study, and is more intent on pulling interest out of the small details. Billy is fully-formed as a character, and much of Broken City is pinned and grounded on his humanity. He’s a man whose greatest attribute is his innate nobility, yet he remains world-weary and flawed. Hughes — with the help of Brian Tucker’s screenplay — shows Billy and the world of Broken City in subtly realistic, authentic terms. For example, Billy’s struggle with alcoholism — and his eventual fall off the wagon — is just a part of who he is instead of being used as a prop for cheap moralizing. Similarly, Billy’s relationship with his girlfriend feels honest and never becomes a simple, rote romance.
Hughes, working for the first time without his twin brother Albert, has made a much less stylized film than their From Hell (2001) or The Book of Eli (2010). In its place is a sense of veteran professionalism that holds the film together while presenting a movie that’s acutely angry. Here, Hughes is railing against the system (he may be one of the few directors who honestly cares about the disenfranchised) in a genuine, understated way that never intrudes on the film’s purpose as entertainment and never indulges in ulterior motives or preachy messages. On the surface, Hughes’ film may seem like little more than yet another crime drama, but there’s enough underneath it all — if you bother to look — to make Broken City of interest. Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence.
Playing at Carmike 10, Carolina Asheville Cinema 14, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande