Although it’s loaded with stars, Broken City has an appropriately grungy, disreputable sheen to it that feels right. Directed by Allen Hughes (here working sans his twin brother, Albert) and written by newcomer Brian Tucker, this crime drama about a broken ex-cop getting played by the opposing sides of a corrupt city feels at times like it’s absorbed the dark cynicism of its subject matter. As such, it makes for a more effective neo-noir than the let’s-play-dress-up posturing of a period pastiche like Gangster Squad.
Mark Wahlberg’s Billy Taggart is a private eye who spends most of his time secretly photographing adulterous spouses. True to form, he’s got a bit of a past: He’s a former NYPD cop who was driven from the force after killing an unarmed suspect. Now the city’s chummy, calculating mayor (Russell Crowe), who’s in the midst of a tough reelection campaign, calls Taggart in and asks him to shadow his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones), to see if she’s having an affair. Sure enough, our hero follows the woman and discovers her getting intimate with the campaign director (Kyle Chandler) of the man looking to unseat her husband. Taggart, a good Catholic and a recovering alcoholic trying to stay on the straight and narrow, can’t believe what he’s discovered. He doesn’t need to: We already know that things aren’t quite what they seem.
The movie’s “Chinatown for Dummies” plot gets a bit more intricate from there — not that we care all that much. As a story, Broken City doesn’t have the poetic charge that Chinatown’s uniquely American mixture of land rights and class warfare and incest carried. But not unlike Chinatown, it’s a curiously passive film: Most of its plot points involve someone seeing something, or reading something, or photographing something, or videotaping something. The film even has a bit of fun with Taggart’s girlfriend, an actress who drags our blue-collar hero along to the premiere of her new indie movie, in which she cavorts around naked and has onscreen sex with her sleazeball director — thus turning the tables on our professional voyeur of a hero.
So, perhaps appropriately for a film in which the characters do a lot of watching, Hughes keeps his camera uncomfortably close to his actors, basically pinning them down. And with Wahlberg, who is at his best when he’s moving and speaking softly (as he was in last year’s Contraband, another effective low-rent genre effort released around this time), this works wonders: We can’t quite keep our eyes off this tense, somewhat ordinary guy trying very hard to keep his life together. But then the ground starts to shift under his feet, and the camera gets even closer. The film begins to take on the quality of something closer to a dream, as Hughes and cinematographer Ben Seresin use shallow focus to suggest a world where everything can slip out of control in an instant.
This is a smart, effective approach — giving everything an unreal quality while still maintaining an immediacy that keeps us involved, even if we know where things are likely headed. It recaptures at least some of the gritty urgency of earlier films Allen Hughes made with his brother, such as Dead Presidents and Menace 2 Society. (It’s also light years away from their more recent efforts, like the postapocalyptic cliché sausage Book of Eli.) Broken City isn’t exactly a return to form for this director, who was once hailed as one half of the Next Big Thing. But it is a movie that’s alive in its own way, and a welcome surprise in a genre sorely lacking in them of late.