“Broken City”… The big sleep-inducer

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.

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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.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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6 thoughts on ““Broken City”… The big sleep-inducer

  1. Didn’t like Book of eli and broken city seems to be much more disappointing. Poor old Russel, I can still hear those songs rather noise from Les Miserables. Please lose weight and wait for Ridley Scott to come up with something that suits you.

    PS: liked the statement, “Wahlberg has become some sort of blue-collar Tom Cruise” !!


  2. The Last Stand: The 80’s action revival continues. Dumb as dog shit. Fun as hell!

    B, even if you have no intention of reviewing it, grab yourself a bucket of popcorn and settle down for a slice of nostalgia-laced R-rated mayhem


  3. “Roman Polanski’s atmospheric masterpiece, made in the cynical 1970s, had no use for moral comeuppances and happy endings.”

    Hmm. I’ve heard that Polanski’s ending was never intended to be cynical. The fact that we did get the jarring ending was apparently because Polanski, upon a whim and faced with an incomplete script, decided to just end the film abruptly. Wonder how true that tale is though.

    And it really is wonderful to see Catherine Zeta Jones settle so gracefully into the next phase of her career.


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