November 4, 2013

Broken City (2013)

Sadly, a lot of movies get dumped into the month of January. For the most part, I wish the month of January and February just banned new movies because studios don't really have faith in them anyway. However, I immediately reverse that statement when I see films like Broken City ... a film that, due to no belief in it whatsoever, was dumped into the third frickin' week of the year of our lord two thousand and thirteen.

Broken City isn't exactly a masterpiece by any stretch but it's ability to know exactly what it is, without reaching, makes it a great neo-noir film to enjoy any time of the year. Broken City never tries to be an epic but it also never tries to pander to anyone: it has a smart, gritty tale to tell and won't do it with big words just to appease the public.

I could be incredibly biased: this is the kind of film tailor made for me. It has private detectives, corrupt political officials, ambiguous leaders in the police department and a cover-up involving twisted real estate deals.

Mark Wahlberg plays former-detective-turned-PI Billy Taggert. Once a police officer forced to resign due to a questionable shooting of a black rapist, Taggert now digs up dirt as a PI for the everyday citizen and is trying like hell to collect on debts for his services he's let pass (he's kinda sorta got a heart of gold).

Taggert does have friends in high places: current New York mayor Nick Hostetler (Russell Crowe) who forced Taggert to retire seven years prior to the events in this film. Hostetler is in a heated election race with suave but reckless Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper) and needs to cover his butt with possible scandals (namely the infidelity of his wife Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones)).

Taggert, and his plucky and underpaid assistant Katy (Alona Tal), take on the task of shadowing Cathleen but uncover something more than sex and unfaithfulness. Soon it's full blown conspiracy involving murder and corrupt land deals ... and Mayor Hostetler might night be the victim of anything, but the perpetrator.

Wahlberg, never exactly a three dimensional thespian, plays the Sam Spade-esque private dick well here. If Wahlberg does anything well as an actor, it is his intensity. Broken City does a great job of showing the grey inside Taggert. An important subplot involves two huge factors: 1)Taggert was a very nonfunctional alcoholic and 2)he is essentially married, though not officially, to the sister of the rape victim of the man he shot seven years previous (played by the unbearably hot Natalie Martinez).

It is Wahlberg's intensity that shows his constant struggle with alcoholism as a frightening thing (one particular sequence of a night he begins to drink for the first time in seven years is extremely uncomfortable). It also adds to Taggert's high anxiety with all things when not allowed to drink. For example, his girlfriend, Natalie, is an aspiring actress. Taggert tries to play the supportive boyfriend at an industry party but, inside, can't stand the acting phonies. Since he can't drink, his insides boil with hatred for all things (though he tries, somewhat successfully, to put on a good face). When at the premiere of Natalie's first film, Taggert is enraged when Natalie is involved in a rather graphic, simulated sex scene. Coupled with the rising tension of his case, Taggert finally breaks down and drinks ... and then the personal life of our her starts to unravel in an ugly way.

But it brings up the question: when drunk, do accomplished men like Taggert perform better. Once back under the drink, Taggert begins his suicide mission to uncover the evidence needed to put the bad guys away. Previously, as a drunk cop, he had managed to bring justice to a rapist. How he went about it (and the film allows it to be somewhat ambiguous) is questioned but the job gets done. Without the drink, Taggert is a man without strong convictions (he lets debts go unpaid and he allows himself no opinions with his girlfriend).

This question carries over into the Mayor's storyline. Russell Crowe, my favorite living actor, is a ruthless and plotting politician. His main challenger in his next election, played expertly by the always underrated Barry Pepper, is a boy scout (at least on paper), and things exposing the machinations of a twisted mayor will solve the city's problems. As we see with Taggert's alcoholism and with the mayor's actual success: do you need to be a good person to make good things happen?

In the end, Taggert brings justice to a community by killing a rapist who got off on a technicality. Meanwhile, Mayor Hostetler mended a 'broken city' ... perhaps by bending the rules. It is these kind of moral questions that exist in Broken City and makes every main character's motivations harder to define as simply good and evil. It is this moral ambiguity that makes me love neo-noir films like this.

Critics seem to feel the film is rather cliche and I guess I could see that in some ways. The hard boiled, noir-esque genre has been successful and niche genre for so long because it does have telegraphed plot points and expectations. What it does inside the borders of expectation is what makes a modern day noir succeed. A solid and surprisingly deep performance from Wahlberg and supporting performances from big time pros like Crowe, Pepper and Jeffrey Wright (as a, yes, ambiguous police chief) makes Broken City worth the price of admission.

The one criticism I have is Catherine Zeta-Jones. Usually, Zeta-Jones just exudes sexy. But here I think she is trying too hard to fit the femme fatale stereotype. She is a detriment to the believability of the entire plot but thankfully she is only around for about 15 minutes. That said, relative newcomer Alona Tal, as Taggert's assistance, is brilliant, bringing a modern day sensibility to the Effie Perines of the noir world.

Not many seem to agree but I think Broken City is an excellent crime thriller that is smart and questions what you think of justice. I do ask that you give it a try.


  1. Okay, I'm curious now. Netflix it is. Thanks, Will

  2. Thanks man! Yeah, give it a shot. I was bored last Saturday and Red Boxed it. Wasn't expecting much: got a lot!

    Directing by one of the Hughes Brothers.


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