Unless it’s an awards contender “opening wide”, my motto is “Beware the films of January”. There are always exceptions of course, but typically I have low expectations for any movie that I’ve gone to see during the first month of any year. One could argue that there are four weekends in January, just as there are in the other eleven months of the year, and they need movies too. But it is precisely because of those awards contenders that January has become the Island of Misfit Movies. It’s almost as if there is a pact among studios that none of them open anything that can compete to take away the “nominations box-office bump” that those prestigious films have earned. (Funnily enough, as I write this, Oscar nominated Jessica Chastain is in theaters in a low-budget horror film, Mama, that took in $33 million this weekend. Number 2 was the film for which she’s nominated, Zero Dark Thirty at around $32 million.)
All of the above is why I’ve chosen to write about a film called Broken City, a crime drama from director Allen Hughes (one half of the Hughes Brothers responsible for Dead Presidents and The Book of Eli, but not the half attached to Motor City that was to have starred Gerard Butler), and not one of the critically acclaimed awards contenders, because it is such a nice surprise. There’s more here than the trailer and clips, and especially the release date, would suggest. A LOT more, and I’ve been following this thing since filming began in November of 2011.
Mark Wahlberg plays Billy Taggart, a detective with the NYPD forced to hand in his badge and gun after being involved in the shooting death of a teenager. While the mayor (Russell Crowe) tells Billy he believes his actions were heroic, the city’s Chief of Police (Jeffrey Wright) isn’t buying it and wants his head on a platter and since the city’s residents are outraged over what they consider the violence perpetrated by the NYPD, Billy’s days on the job are done. Flash forward seven years and the former cop is making his living as a low-rent P.I. who can’t get his clients to pay up.
Just before Election Day, Crowe’s Mayor Hostetler, who is still the mayor and running neck and neck with his opponent, the seemingly on-the-nose-named Jack Valliant, contacts Billy and makes him an offer he can’t refuse, to the tune of $50,000. It appears that the mayor’s wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is cheating on him, and he wants pictures and gory details – everything- about the man with whom his wife has betrayed him.
If it were all that simple, we wouldn’t have a movie, so the job is not quite as straightforward as it seems. Billy, who’s not nearly as dumb as he looks, begins to pluck at a thread in a tangled web of political corruption involving the sale of a public housing complex that also happens to be linked to Billy’s past. So instead of just walking away $50,000 richer, which would be the smart thing, but a lot less thrilling, he decides to take on the larger-than-life, even downright creepy, political animal that is Crowe’s Mayor.
Can we talk about Russell Crowe for a minute? Setting aside the fact that he may be a telephone-hurling sociopath, he’s undeniably a great actor. Now that he’s getting a little long in the tooth for typical leading-man roles, I’m hoping he takes on more villains. They are a good fit.
As for Wahlberg, he has a tendency to play characters that take themselves very seriously. (He seems to only have three expressions in his repertoire: angry, confused or a combination of both.) One of the best things about Broken City is that even when Wahlberg takes Billy too seriously, the movie generally doesn’t, even laying a sly finger on the side of its nose* when Billy gets exasperated by the proliferation of plot twists. Crowe’s Mayor could come across as “Snidely Whiplash” bad, but the humor helps to keep him grounded.
Speaking of plot twists, most of them do appear progressively, one thing leading to another. There are no red herrings and there are no dangling threads and each new twist amps up the intrigue. We’re never even sure exactly what happened the fateful night that Billy’s career ended until the final reel. Bits of it are peeled away a corner at a time over the course of the film as it pertains to events in the present.
Is it perfect? Of course not. There’s an undercurrent of homophobia that runs through the movie that feels dated. A big speed bump for me was Natalie Martinez and her character, Natalie. For one thing, the character is in the courtroom at the beginning of the movie when Billy’s case is dismissed for lack of evidence. Seven years later, she hasn’t aged a day. In fact, it’s not clear whether they are “together” at the beginning, if they were, then she was probably jail-bait. Her character seems to exist to give Billy a reason to talk to her parents. Billy is stereotypically jealous with stereotypical results.
In addition to the two leads, the rest of the cast is terrific with excellent actors playing smaller but crucial parts. Catherine Zeta Jones has little to do, but does it with her typical slinky style and élan. In particular, Jeffrey Wright, as the brusque, stand-offish police commissioner whose motives are difficult to get a handle on and especially Barry Pepper as Jack Valliant, whose big scene blew me away.
It’s obvious that Hughes, his screenwriter Brian Tucker and most of all, his cinematographer Ben Seresin, want to invoke the spirit of the late, great Sidney Lumet, who made gritty, noir-esque New York classics like Serpico and Prince of the City in which a tough cop fights corruption and in which the city was itself a character. His is a voice sorely missed. Broken City, doesn’t reach those heights, but who else is even trying? First time screenwriter Tucker may get there one day. All in all, Broken City is better than a movie unceremoniously dumped in mid-January has a need to be. Indeed, it’s better than a lot of films one might find in any other month of the year, as well.
*In The Sting, a sign from one player to another that they were in on the con was an index finger brushed along the side of the nose.