Movie: Broken City; Director: Allen Hughes; Studio: Twentieth Century Fox; Rating: R; Flint's finding: 3/5 stars.
"Broken City" will never be a critic's darling.
The film, equipped with an all-star cast headed by Mark Wahlberg and Russell Crowe, is a beautifully shot film. It romanticizes the dirtiest aspects of life in a metropolis in ways not seen since the time when Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson chewed through plot-heavy film noirs in the 1940s. That is the type of film that "Broken City," from its straightforward name to its predictable and implausible plot, wants to be.
The trouble is that this is not the 1940s. Today, we have films built upon the structures of more than a lifetime of filmmaking. What was new back then is old hat now, and there is no way around that. "Broken City" has all the elements of the genre right but it's all been done before.
There's the broken down ex-detective, Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg), who's forced to be a private investigator for deadbeats after losing his NYPD job after shooting down a thug who walked free on a technicality. There's the corrupt politician, Mayor Hostetler (Russell Crowe with a glorious Australian version of a tough New York native accent), who has everybody on the payroll but extolls the virtues of morality and community when in public. There's the Kennedy-esque reforming opposition politician, Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper), who, in Hostetler's summation, is "a lightweight" not ready to play by the cheap political tactics that have taken the mayor so far. There's the femme fatale, the mayor's wife, Cathleen (the still-stunning Catherine Zeta-Jones). And so on and so forth.
The characters all play out exactly as one would expect. Director Allen Hughes has broken away from his brother, Albert, who he had co-directed 2006's "The Book of Eli" and 2001's "From Hell" with, is joined by writer Brian Tucker, in his first film, and the two seem to want to pack the film with all the genre trappings, so that its just not fresh.
The stylized film begins with Wahlberg, working undercover, who is sweating, breathing heavily and bearded (looking like Bill Paxton, actually). He is holding his gun straight out in the air as his undercover partner comes rushing over, and the camera shifts to show a man shot in the head.
This immediately cuts to the district courthouse where people want "justice" and they want it "now." Taggart is acquitted of murder charges but is stripped of his job by the mayor and the police commissioner due to bad publicity.
"You give them an arrest or you give them a resignation," Mayor Hostetler says later in the film about another murder, pretty much summing up the type of morality that made the old films so great.
Seven years later, while working in his nearly failing detective agency, Taggart gets a call from the mayor, who had said that "in my eyes, you're a hero" right before he fired him from the force. Hostetler is now offering Taggart $50,000 to find out who Cathleen is sleeping with.
The set-up for the scene that scene is also a wonderful example of why this film is so entertaining. Crowe and Wahlberg are both so fun to watch in these roles they embody so fully. Crowe's rich voice draws the audience in as he sets up the assignment with a story, as the camera whirls around them and the scotch flows freely.
Not as freely for Taggart, though. He apparently quit drinking the day he was fired seven years before. I guess that's an acceptable price to pay to reform oneself, but he drinks later in the film in a ridiculous and unneeded subplot where the "independent film" his girlfriend stars in turns out to be a soft-core porn movie. She then disappears from the story, but she's not the only almost unneeded character in the film - they are too numerous to list.
It turns out that the assignment Taggart was given isn't exactly what it had seemed. He's spying on the mayor's wife, but not for infidelity. This is, after all, a story of corruption in the classic sense, but it's much more "Boss Tweed" of the political machine than it is about sex and relationships. The mayor likes being "The Mayor," and he likes money, and he likes power, and all the clues are obvious. But the "street tough" ex-cop can't see that he's entering a hornet's nest even as those clues slap him in the face, figuratively, over and over, even as people like Cathleen flat-out tell him there is more to the story.
Jeffrey Wright, who is always amazing in roles as diverse as Colin Powell in 2008's "W." to a very effeminate stylist in the beautiful HBO mini-series "Angels in America," rounds out the leading cast as Police Commissioner Carl Fairbanks. Fairbanks has always known the mayor is crooked, and has been awaiting his chance to bring him down. Sure, Fairbanks can be shady in some ways, but overall he's a law-and-order type and won't have syndicate crime in his city.
Despite the cliches, which run rampant, "Broken City" was a thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining film.
I'll make sure to watch "Double Indemnity," "The Maltese Falcon," and even "D.O.A." a few times to remember what the old, good film noirs were. But then I'll sneak out and rent this one to enjoy this, slick, well-acted, complete mess of a film.
(Flint McColgan is a staff writer for The Minot Daily News. His movie reviews appear periodically in Thursday's Arts &?Entertainment section.)