In Broken City, New York Mayor Nicholas Hostetler (played by Russell Crowe), enlists the help of ex-cop turned private investigator Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg), to follow his wife, Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones).
For all intents and purposes, Cathleen is not being truthful with her husband and running around with Paul Andrews (Kyle Chandler), campaign manager of Hostetler’s foe Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper).
Hostetler, the incumbent, and Valliant, the new kid on the block, are locked in a heated election race that’s getting uglier by the minute. When Taggart presents Hostetler with incriminating photos, a series of events leave Taggart chasing the real meaning of said photos and Paul’s murderer.
In his first filmed script, screenwriter Brian Tucker takes his audience through a slow-boil thrill ride that unravels a New York politician’s scheme to line his pockets with $2 billion from a plan to re-develop a housing project into a posh community.
The only problem is: Hostetler is using his scheme to displace 37,000 people from their homes as a campaign ploy to claim that he has put $4 billion back into New York’s sparse treasury. The typical campaign fluff is used in debate speeches to rev up audiences.
One half of the Hughes Brothers team, director Allen Hughes – who’s also responsible for Menace II Society, Dead Presidents and Knights of the South Bronx – weaves together a story with characters who all have an angle. The audience becomes quite aware that no one can be trusted.
Not Taggart, who may or may not have shot a man in cold blood. Not Hostetler, whose best asset is his ability to twist the truth to his benefit. Not even Valliant, whose secret passion and upper-class upbringing belie his do-gooder politician exterior.
Each layer of Broken City brings a new suspicion and conspiracy for the audience to ponder, as well. Police Commissioner Carl
Fairbanks (Jeffrey Wright) is too shady for comfort. Valliant is too emotional about Paul’s murder for there to not be a deeper connection. Hostetler likes his assistant way too much to be that concerned about his wife’s infidelity; at least, not concerned enough to pay a PI $50,000 to investigate it. And Taggart’s actress girlfriend, Natalie (Miami native Natalie Martinez) is way too friendly with her co-star for comfort.
Broken City, while not the best at keeping tight with its own storyline, does allow its audience to peel back the layers of the story so that no one gets bored. It also pokes at last year’s general election race and the politicians who campaigned for their posts.
Crowe’s bullish Mayor Hostetler takes turns smiling for his adoring public and coolly decimating those who stand in his way. Using his bullying tactics to not only make his money, but intimidate his opponent, nothing can touch Hostetler; not even his wife scheming against him.
Pepper’s Valliant, cracking under debate pressure from Hostetler, falters when faced with a dominant personality. His performance begs the question of whether or not someone so wilted could actually stand as the mayor of New York City. Valliant’s juxtaposition to Hostetler makes the incumbent mayor look like a wolf and Valliant a tender piece of meat.
Wahlberg, who has a fondness for playing New York City cops, gives a rousing performance as a former good/bad cop who is too smart for his own good. Taggart exhibits parallel personalities wherein he’s too trusting to be a cop yet instinctual enough to see that there is a conspiracy going on right in front of his face.
Wright’s Commissioner Fairbanks also is the kind of character who keeps the audience guessing, even after the ending credits. It’s never really clear which side Fairbanks is on and where his loyalties lie. The only obvious thing about Fairbanks is that he does not care who you are. Whether citizen or mayor, if a crime is committed, he will catch the criminal.
Should one remove the layers of this conspiracy story, perhaps they would find that Tucker is really making the case that the two typical types of politicians all have something to hide, regardless of whether they have bullish personalities or gentle dispositions.
Either way, Tucker has written a tight story about the fallacy of not doing your research when it comes to picking an elected official. It’s not always about picking the most charismatic individual.
That said, Tucker should have invested some time into giving Broken City a tighter ending to match up with its tight storyline. Then again, that is what filmmakers do when they want to make a sequel.