I never knew just how much I missed Russell Crowe until I realized that technically he was never actually gone. He was just lying dormant, waiting to chew some scenery with the zeal of a radioactive silverfish. It’s a pity he couldn’t find a better movie in which to bring his “A” game: Broken City has all the ambition of a classic political conspiracy thriller, but despite an exceptional cast and some whip-crack direction from Allen Hughes, the film only musters enough story to fill a tawdry airplane novel.
Mark Wahlberg stars as Billy Taggart, a cop who executed a murderer and rapist and gets acquitted just before a video comes to light that catches him in the act, and forces him into early, early retirement courtesy of Mayor Hostetler, played by Russell Crowe, and Commissioner Fairbanks, played by Jeffrey Wright. Seven years later, Billy is a private investigator and behind on his bills, when Mayor Hostetler throws him a bone. On the eve of his re-election, Billy is paid $50,000 to follow Hostetler’s wife, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, and get photographic evidence that she’s having an affair.
And so begins a game of Three-card Monte, where the pieces jump across the board and the audience is expected to follow along with heavy-handed conversations where every minor character’s name gets dropped a dozen times, even though we’ve probably only paid enough attention to know them as “Russell Crowe,” “Mark Wahlberg” and “That Guy from ‘The Wire.’” Allen Hughes keeps the game going strong for quite a long while, with snorting macho types competing with fancy-suited intellectuals for dominance, murders popping up at exactly the wrong times and plenty of entendres from Catherine Zeta-Jones, who is perhaps suspiciously good at playing the “loveless marriage” angle. Broken City has the look, pacing and thoroughly invested performances of a classic thriller. It does not, unfortunately, have the substance or the end game.
The plot of Broken City boils down to a very predictable mystery, thanks in large part to a screenplay that turns the obvious red herring into the actual crux of the film. As the first and second acts unfold, the script starts throwing out new ideas, intriguing characters and potential twists, but ultimately it comes right back around to the very first plot points that were mentioned on screen, which were pretty uninspiring to begin with and never evolve into anything particularly meaningful. Everything else either gets wrapped up in a strangely homophobic bow (“cross-dresser” is used as a limp, awkward slur, and surprise: someone’s gay!), or, in the case of Wahlberg’s elaborate marriage woes, is little more than an overlong explanation for why an apartment complex, of all things, has some personal significance to the hero.
But while Broken City never adds up to much, doing the arithmetic is a surprisingly fun way to spend a couple hours. Mark Wahlberg is taking his role very seriously, Alona Tal makes the most of her Girl Friday role (and I do hope we’ll be seeing more of her), and Russell Crowe is unusually energized as a pit-bull politician who never met a monologue he didn’t like. His dastardly Mayor Hostetler, complete with his eight-year-old schoolboy haircut and “here, get your fingerprints on this gun” exuberance with the props, may be the most entertaining character he’s brought to the screen since 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma, the last time he played a bad guy, come to think of it. Crowe is a Batman villain desperately in need of an actual Batman, and the kind of hero who stumbles into the only box of unshredded documents at the scene of the crime doesn’t qualify.