“Broken City” is the kind of civic-minded law-and-order thriller that hardly gets made anymore, probably because for the past 20 years television shows like “Law & Order” (and all the spin-offs and imitations it spawned) have so handily filled that category. But if “Broken City” – the first film to be directed solo by Allen Hughes, one-half of the Hughes Brothers directing team – is a little flawed and cracked itself, it still squeaks by as a reasonably thoughtful piece of big-screen entertainment. The picture comes out swinging with both a conscience and a set of brass knuckles; it also features a Russell Crowe who doesn’t, thankfully, sing. What’s not to love?
Mark Wahlberg stars as Billy Taggart, a scrappy New York City cop who’s been pushed out of the force after a controversial shooting on the grounds of a public housing complex called Bolton Village. He makes ends meet, barely, as a private investigator, though he and his trusty, smart-ass assistant Katy (Alona Tal), spend far too much of their time chasing down nonpaying clients. That’s why Billy is delighted to take a big-money assignment from his old pal, Mayor Hostetler (Crowe), a slick old-school charmer who believes his wife, Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones), is cheating on him.
It also happens to be election time, and Hostetler hopes his principled, man-of-the-people opponent, the appropriately named Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper), won’t unseat him. What’s more, Hostetler is in the middle of wheeler-dealering a multimillion deal to sell Bolton Village to a private-equity firm, an arrangement that he swears will “improve the lives” of the complex’s residents. As if.
The cartoonish excess of “Broken City” is part of the fun, although Hughes and first-time screenwriter Brian Tucker do have their feet planted in the here and now: The picture borrows heavily from our recent real-life pre-election debates about the disparity between the haves and the have-nots – as well as the same-sex marriage issue -- and there’s no doubt about where the picture stands politically. And yet Hughes prevents the whole affair from coming off as preachy. If “Broken City” is essentially a social-issues picture, it’s also one with a healthy dose of grim shootings and rampant head bashing.
This is Hughes’ first film since the 2010 “The Book of Eli,” which he co-directed with his twin brother, Albert. (The duo made their debut, at the tender age of 20, with the 1993 ghetto-hustler picture “Menace II Society.”) The movie has a stylish, gritty look, although at times Hughes and cinematographer Ben Seresin seem to be trying too hard, indulging in unnecessary circular pans just because they can.
But it’s fun to watch this cast, particularly Wahlberg: Even though he plays almost nothing but cops these days, he still brings a surprising blast of regular-guy energy to this role. A scene in which he melts down in the presence of his actress girlfriend’s hoity-toity “metrosexual” actor pals may be mildly overplayed – but then, haven’t there been times when you wanted to punch the lights out of the smug guy at the end of the table, wearing a fedora? Jeffrey Wright shows up in a righteous turn as the city’s police commissioner, and Zeta-Jones struts onto the scene in a series of luxurious wrap-around coats: That dame just looks like money, and that’s as it should be.
Crowe may be having the most fun of all, packing fat rolls of villainy and greed into this bespoke suit of a performance. He saunters through “Broken City” as if he owned the place, just as the corrupt Mayor Hostetler believes he owns the city of New York. The performance is too much, but there are times when too much is just right. “Broken City” is a movie about a city in transition. It’s a place where not even the good guys are always so good, but the fat cat at the top is Public Enemy Number One.