For today’s entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, let’s take a look at one of the most disappointing films of 2013, Broken City.
It’s a bit hard to describe the plot of Broken City, not because it’s particularly clever but just because there’s so much of it. The film starts with New York police detective Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) murdering a man in cold blood. But don’t worry, the murdered man was a murderer himself who was only out of jail on a technicality. The Mayor of New York, Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe, who sounds like he’s as much of a New Yorker as I am and I ain’t no New Yorker), pulls some strings and get a judge to drop the charges against Billy. The Mayor tells Billy that he’s a hero but Billy is still forced to leave the police.
Jump forward seven years later. Mayor Hostetler is locked in a tight re-election battle. His opponent is a liberal councilman named Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper.) Yes, the man’s last name is Valliant and — surprise! — it turns out that he’s actually a really sincere guy who wants to make New York a great place to live. We know this because we get to sit through an endless debate between him and Hostetler. While Hostetler gives a speech about how he’s against higher taxes, Valliant says that all he’s doing is asking the rich “to pay their fair share.” The debate audience, of course, explodes into applause. Valliant never gets around to saying, “If you like your plan, you can keep your plan.” Maybe they’re saving that for the sequel.
Meanwhile, Billy is now a private investigator. His girlfriend is an actress who has just appeared in an independent film. When Billy goes to the premiere, he’s so upset over the sight of his girlfriend being taken from behind on the big screen that he starts drinking and attacking random strangers on the street.
Meanwhile, (in many ways, Broken City is a movie of meanwhiles) Mayor Hostetler has hired Billy to follow his wife Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and discover who she’s having an affair with. Working with his assistant (played by Alona Tal), Billy follows Cathleen and discovers that she’s been spending time with Paul Andrews (Kyle Chandler), who happens to be the manager of the Valliant campaign…
Or is she? As Billy subsequently discovers, the truth is a lot more complicated than it seems (or probably needs to be).
Broken City got a lot of attention because the script was listed on the 2008 Black List. The Black List is an annual list of the “best” unproduced scripts in Hollywood. Now, it should be understood that the concept of what makes something the “best” is always open to interpretation. In the case of the Black List, the “best” is determined by a survey of studio and production executives. The Black List comes out every December and it usually provides an excuse for lazy entertainment writers to write yet another article or blog post bemoaning all of the Hollywood remakes while so many creative and original scripts remain unproduced.
But here’s the thing. Since, I started reviewing films for the Shattered Lens, I’ve had the chance to see several films that were produced from Black List scripts. A few of them have been good but the majority of them have either been likable but forgettable (i.e., Cedar Rapids) or else they’ve been total and complete disasters, like The Beaver. Typically, Black List films tend to be overly complicated, overly ambitious, and never quite as intelligent as they may seem. Frequently, Black List scripts tend to be a bit cutesy in a way that’s effective on paper but annoying on screen. (For example, naming your film’s only good politician Jack Valliant is one of those cutesy concepts that tend to turn up in a lot of Black List scripts.) Several of these scripts, Broken City included, are thrillers that attempt to use the conventions of the genre film to make some larger point about American society. They’ve usually got some sort of dreary political subtext and they always seem to feature a twist that’s surprising only because it doesn’t make any sense.
And that is certainly the case when it comes to Broken City. Don’t get me wrong — the film starts well and Mark Wahlberg is well-cast as the hero. But, with each passing minute of film, things get messier and messier until, finally, it’s impossible to take the film seriously. It’s obvious that director Allen Hughes meant for Broken City to be more than just a thriller. Instead, in much the same way that Charles Dickens used London, Hughes makes a valiant effort to use the film’s New York as a metaphor for our own corrupt society. Under Hughes’s direction, Broken City does a lot without doing any of it that well.
Indeed, if I could give this film an A for effort and ambition, I certainly would. However, in the end, a film should first be judged by what is actually seen on-screen. Taken by that standard, Broken City is a mess, a disorganized collection of themes and subplots that attempts to do so much that it accomplishes very little. Russell Crowe and Catherine Zeta-Jones both struggle to sound like New Yorkers while Barry Pepper is so overly intense and wired as the saintly Valliant that I would be scared to vote for him. Seriously, he seems like the type who would start a war in the name of social justice and then end up having so much fun killing and conquering that he’d forget what the reason for fighting was in the first place. On a positive note, Mark Wahlberg and Alona Tal have a very likable chemistry and it’s too bad that the rest of the film didn’t take better advantage of it.
Broken City? Broken film.
Other Entries In The 44 Days of Paranoia
- Executive Action
- Winter Kills
- Interview With The Assassin
- The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
- Beyond The Doors
- Three Days of the Condor
- They Saved Hitler’s Brain
- The Intruder
- Police, Adjective
- Burn After Reading
- Quiz Show
- Flying Blind
- God Told Me To
- Wag the Dog
- Scream and Scream Again
- Capricorn One
- Seven Days In May