In the midst of the worst economic recession in decades, many would say that there’s no better time and place for a neo-noir thriller than a big American city in the present day, and Broken City thrusts the power and influence of money in a failing economy right into the spotlight from the word go.
Directed by Allen Hughes, best known for directing From Hell and The Book of Eli with his brother Albert, and starring Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, the film follows a well-trodden path in typical noir tradition, but successfully implements a present-day setting with present-day problems, with more than enough revelations along the way to entertain, surprise, and excite.
In Broken City, disgraced former New York policeman Billy Taggart (Wahlberg), now working as a private eye (complete with an office in the familiar noir tradition and more than a little reminiscent of Scotty Fergusson’s in Vertigo) receives a contract from mayor Nick Hostetler (Crowe) to spy on his wife (Zeta-Jones) and find out the identity of the man with whom the mayor believes she is having an affair. As you’d expect, however, there’s much more to the story than meets the eye, as Billy stumbles upon cover-ups and secrets which endanger not only his life but the lives of many more, specifically those associated with Jack Valliant, Hostetler’s opponent in New York’s upcoming mayoral elections (played brilliantly by Barry Pepper).
The film’s strong points are found in its setting and its tone: Hughes’ vision of a New York divided by voters, police and politicians and racked by debt; and the constant, unwavering sense of tension that pervades the film, accentuated both by cinematographer Ben Seresin’s roving camera, which makes its point straight from the über-stylised opening shot, and by Atticus Ross’s pounding electronic score, reminiscent of similar recent films such as cult thriller Drive and paranormal horror Insidious.
The film does, however, fall short in some aspects. Wahlberg has always seemed to be a star who lets his supporting cast do the real acting (as evidenced by both supporting actors in Darren Aronofsky’s The Fighter winning supporting actor Oscars and Wahlberg not being nominated in the lead role), and Broken City is no different; the problem here is that none of his supporting actors are quite capable of stealing the film like Christian Bale and Melissa Leo, and this isn’t helped by a sometimes clunky script full of overtly expositional dialogue, a few flat performances and a couple of backstories which could have been far more fleshed out: in particular Zeta-Jones’ character arc, which hints at a classic femme fatale subplot but falls slightly short; and Taggart’s relationship with his girlfriend, which ends up as more of a footnote than a headline.
As a political neo-noir thriller, though, the film does everything you’d expect and more. The storyline is clever, with more than a few surprises along the way, the occasional comedic moments break the tension expertly, and the film excels in demonstrating the power of money in a damaged society and the things people are willing to do to get their hands on it. By Broken City’s excellent climax, no one ends up with their hands or their conscience clean, no one is immune to the polluting power of the promise of money, power or a clean slate, and in the end, despite the neverending promises made by politicians, the efforts of the police or the actions of the various others involved in the scandal, there’s only one person who cares enough about the broken city to really try and fix it.
Broken City is released in the UK and Ireland on the 1st March.
Mike Gibson @mike_marathon