After a character who threatened to become a major player ends up by a New York City sidewalk pumped full of lead, we see television-news coverage of the crime, plastered with the legend: “Live from Chinatown.” The director Allen Hughes may be winking at us with this reference to one of Hollywood’s last great noirs – for, like Chinatown, Broken City is driven by a low-rent private eye (Billy Taggart, played by Mark Wahlberg) who finds himself in over his head while investigating what appears to be a routine adultery case. Here too that case is tied to a corrupt real-estate deal – but there’s a difference. Roman Polanski’s atmospheric masterpiece, made in the cynical 1970s, had no use for moral comeuppances and happy endings. But in the Obama era, apparently, good must triumph over evil – and a noir drama unfolding in a virtuous world turns out about as compelling as a gangster epic staged with water pistols.
For proof of how toothless Broken City is, we only have to look at the scene where Taggart accompanies his actress-girlfriend (Natalie Martinez) to the premiere of her first film. He sees her making love to her costar and flips out, turning to drink after seven years of abstinence. Just a few minutes earlier, we were shown that this couple has weathered far worse storms, and nothing prepares us for the shallowness of the breakup that ensues. And worse, after the end of this relationship, climbing off the wagon does not inform Taggart’s character in any significant manner – it’s just cheap dramaturgy. “Oh look,” we’re meant to exclaim, “things aren’t going right for him professionally, and now his personal life is shot too.” The investigation end of the story is written with a similar amount of sophistication. This is the kind of movie where a sharp villain is brought down by his confessions recorded on a hidden microphone.
If Hughes just wanted to make a crowd-pleasing thriller about a flawed but basically decent man who makes a pact with the devil and gropes for a way out, he could have modeled his film after The Firm. That’s the kind of escapist entertainment that can accommodate a movie star whose fans won’t pay to see him in a film where he plays too much against type. (And Wahlberg has become some sort of blue-collar Tom Cruise.) Broken City, on the other hand, needed an actor, star or not, who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty – in other words, someone like Jack Nicholson. Russell Crowe is in here somewhere, embodying either a New York City mayor or an actor wondering if he’ll ever appear in anything good again, and this allows the magnificent Catherine Zeta-Jones to walk away with the film with the few scenes she’s in. Future filmmakers hoping to remake Chinatown need look no further for their Faye Dunaway.
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