Available this week on DVD, “Broken City” stars Mark Wahlberg and Russell Crowe, and that alone might lead you to think the film has promise. After all, why would two big box-office names sign on to something that is dull, confusing, and, umm, broken? Sadly, they did, and the resulting hodgepodge of a film — which also features Catherine Zeta-Jones among the ex-Oscar nominees — never mends itself sufficiently to provide consistent entertainment.
It wants to be an updated noir flick, set in contemporary New York City but filled with characters and clichés fresh out of the ‘40s and ‘50s. (At one point, there is a heavy-handed visual allusion to “Chinatown,” a movie that knew how to color things noir.) The central character, private dick Billy Taggart (Wahlberg), is a disgraced ex-cop, who has survived a bad-shooting trial with his innocence decreed but his job and reputation lost. We pick him up seven years after he’s let off the hook, but still struggling to make a living. He has the unfortunate propensity to attract clients who can’t, don’t, or just plain won’t pay him for the sleazy work he performs — mostly tracking down and photographing errant spouses.
But he leaves the payment collection duties to his cute blonde secretary, Katy, played by Alona Tal, one of the best things the movie has going for it. She brings her boss the bad news that they are over $40,000 in debt. Luckily (or is it?), Billy gets a call from Da Mayor (Crowe), who wants him to track his wife (Zeta-Jones), whom he suspects of having an affair. Since the election is only days away, Hizzoner can’t afford the attendant bad press, especially since the polls have him trailing an idealistic young councilman, Jack Vaillant (really), played by Barry Pepper, whose talents are wasted here.
Since the job pays $50,000, Billy leaps at it, despite some early indications that all is not as clear as it seems. He falls off the wagon, loses his actress girl friend, gets beat up, warned off — you name it, the gig just ain’t worth the aggravation. Even the police commissioner (Jeffrey Wright) doesn’t want him peering into the dark corners and bedrooms too closely. Naturally, Billy persists and, equally predictably, things get even worse before he gets at the Real Situation, which involves corruption on a massive scale, even for the Big Apple.
Director Allen Hughes tries to goose up the torpid, talky proceedings with some fights, a hint of sexuality, and the obligatory car chase. But nothing can save the movie from its derivative script by screenwriter Brian Tucker, in his first credited attempt. Hughes lets scenes drag on too long, and the Big Surprise at the end is telegraphed like a Twins pitcher’s fastball. The resolution is not a home run but a pop out.
“Broken City” is rated “R” for pervasive violence and profanity. If teenagers — or adults who haven’t seen it — want to experience some really good contemporary noir, go rent “Chinatown”: save some money and, in the bargain, enjoy a classic.