Broken City opens with a shot that circles a smoking gun in the hands of Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg). It’s night and a darkened alleyway surrounds the lone police officer. The wisps of smoke fade from the barrel, and we suspect that as the camera pulls back further soon it will reveal whom Taggart’s bullet has struck.
We soon discover that there is a lot more to the story and this single scene reveals what is best and worst in director Allen Hughes’ Broken City. There is plenty to like and some not to like.
Let’s start with the good stuff.
Though it is marketed as a tough guy versus tough guy drama, Broken City is a detail-oriented neo-noir that actively plays with and subverts the tropes and characters so often associated with the genre.
Whalberg’s Taggart is the world-weary private eye with a troubled past. Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe) is the corrupt mayor with the beautiful and dangerous wife, Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones). There is a brash police commissioner as well as an attractive secretary that serves up just enough sexual tension.
Broken City is not a sloppy story that wants to be a noir. It is a studied and structured affair that takes its genre seriously, right down to the overt double entendres.
Which brings us to the ugly side of Broken City.
The storyline with Taggart’s girlfriend, though it does get folded neatly into the main plot, feels stale, and there is no spark or chemistry to even convey a strained relationship.
Hughes’ constantly moving camera distracts from moments that would have been better served with a stable shot, especially when the dialogue and story is so stylized. The movement never gave the viewer a solid footing, whereas a locked-down shot could have accentuated the developing mystery, or made us speculate fruitlessly until the reveal takes place.
I doubt that Broken City will elicit many pointed reactions either positive or negative, but fans of film noir should give it a look. It is an imperfect, yet enjoyable film and is far more thoughtful than I had anticipated.