8 March 2013

BROKEN CITY- Review

Mark Wahlberg has become one of the most prolific stars in Hollywood, by diversifying his output between mid-range crime thrillers and action movies, and exercising his surprising talents as a comedic straight man. It doesn't take long to realise that Broken City is not a buddy comedy, even if Russell Crowe's radioactive uber-tan might provoke giggles.

Instead, Wahlberg plays Billy Taggart, a cop who faces jail amidst a scandal over the death of a young offender. Charismatic New York mayor Nicholas Hostetler is instrumental in getting Billy out of trouble, but drums him out of the police force in the process. Billy becomes a private eye, and several years later, he gets a call from Mayor Hostetler, asking him to investigate his wife's extra-marital activities. But beneath the surface of what seems like a simple job, lies massive corruption in the mayor's office, and a double-cross that puts Billy on the warpath.

With obvious aspirations towards touchstones such as All The President's Men and Chinatown, Broken City instead comes across as a little dated. More than anything, it resembles the kind of film that would be made in the 1990s, and also be inspired by those classics- it feels like a third-generation homage, even though it's perfectly serviceable on its own merits. The main problem that this throws up is that the film is meant to have some mysterious elements, and there's no point where the audience can't puzzle out the plot before Billy does.

First-time screenwriter Brian Tucker's complicated script certainly provides a great workout for Wahlberg's perplexed face. He's long since graduated beyond the "Marky Mark" label, and it seems that when that nickname is tossed out these days, it's out of affection, rather than a mocking reminder that this guy used to dance around in his undies. The difficulty is that he's doing exactly what the script requires, as a working guy with a code of honour and morality, but that leaves him several steps behind the viewer. The few kinks and surprises that arise come from contrivance, rather than any kind of enigmatic storytelling.

In terms of predictability, it's largely related to what Hostetler does to get Billy off of the murder charges levelled against him- a key plot element that could have been used to twist the knife and escalate the conflict through the sluggish second act of the film, but which Tucker chooses to hold onto, until the final confrontation. In the main plot, the surprises that arise only serve to connect a whole bunch of characters- it's one of those films that takes place in a great big city and makes it into a much smaller story world. There's also a sub-plot with Billy's girlfriend that abruptly ends midway through, to clumsily trip into an unexplored romantic thread between Billy and his secretary.

Director Allen Hughes brings his usually solid craft to the film, and on balance, there's nothing wrong with a solidly made crime drama such as this one. Weirdly though, it comes down to Hostetler's tan. Russell Crowe does a great job of radiating misplaced trust and slimy charisma every time he's on screen, and the unnatural tan makes complete sense as a character choice. But the rest of the film isn't interesting enough to avert a situation in which the tan is completely distracting. You're waiting for that conflict between Billy and the mayor to rear its head, and when it's not immediately forthcoming, you just start to watch everyone basking in the glow of Crowe's big orange face, and energetic performance.

Broken City is remarkable only by the distinction of being a crime movie for grown-ups, released at a time when that kind of film is relatively scarce. "Solid" is the word that keeps coming up, because while it's a decent watch, which is recommended for those who aren't well-versed in the genre and its history, it's set in its ways. It's so solid as to forsake a complex plot for a complicated one. It carries a little excess weight as a result, even though Hughes does a good job with the direction, and the cast are in fine fettle.

Broken City is still showing in cinemas nationwide.
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I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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