There are hints of a real film throughout Broken City. Shadows and echoes of a movie that's not quite there on the screen, either left on the cutting room floor or never filmed to begin with.
We open in New York City, a beat cop named Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) is involved with a high profile shooting. He's hustled off to court, where his defense attorney states, "It isn't murder if the other guy is shooting at you," and somehow the courtroom boos this sentiment -- our first indication that this world tonally exists outside our own. Behind the scenes he meets Mayor Hostetler (Russell Crowe) who tells him not to sweat losing his job, things will work out because Mr. Mayor has a long memory, whatever that means (whatever that means will become a running theme in Broken City). Then, in the grand tradition of many a bad script, we're ushered forward seven years.
"Broken City" is a 20th Century Fox release, directed by Allen Hughes and is rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence. The running time is .
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Billy has become a private detective, using his stalking skills to catch husbands cheating on their wives. Billy's "ethos" is that he never collects payment up front, which inexplicably leads to a montage where he and his assistant become bill collectors. Where did he pick up this quirky habit? Who knows, no time to explain, just accept it's his "thing" and enjoy the perplexing scene playing out in front of you. His administrative partner, Katy Bradshaw (Alona Tal), mentions she'll always be there for Billy, which is one of about a dozen lines that come out of nowhere and are never fully explored or explained. We simply must accept that Broken City doesn't know exactly what it's doing and let it wobble on down the road with a goofy grin affixed.
The Mayor soon calls upon Billy, and it's clear from here on out that our favorite private dick is embroiled in a tonally shifting murder mystery. Who is the bad guy? What sort of mess has Billy gotten himself into this time? We'll never really know, because the story itself doesn't know, it comes across as the fan fiction you'd write if you'd never seen the original source material.
The first half of Broken City plays like a halfway decent political / relationship drama. For 45 minutes or so, it pretty much works, and it's easy to anticipate major payoffs as the film progresses. These never come, and the items that are fully explored are handled with all the subtlety of an rumbling wildebeest.
It may be a bit spoilerish, but to fully explore the nonsense exposition, certain plot points must be hinted at. The first of which is critical to the entire thrust of the narrative -- Why and how is Billy anything more than tangentially involved in the Mayor's schemes? At times, Billy seems to grow half a conscience, and there's a crucial moment where the mayor's wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) attempts to warn Billy he's in over his head. Our interest is piqued, but as she hints and toys with Billy she equips him for nothing at all -- her clandestine efforts seem wholly inadequate to her true goals. The film probably should have ended right there because nothing afterward adds up.
The first major sticking point is that the mayor's wife could have, at no risk to herself, saved Billy (and by extension, New York City) from the calamity that is to befall everyone. Other than knowing glances and sideways winks, Billy (and by extension, the audience) knows no more than when he met her. He's still safely on his way to a disaster that he can't possibly avert, and we can only assume it's because the characters have nothing resembling actual human instincts or emotions.
Another of the really strange moments comes when the Chief of Police enlists Billy's help at a crime scene, only he does this about a minute after he tells him he's going to take him down for murder, and there's nothing in-between that occurs between them. Broken City is a collection of relatively decent moments from a number of films, but completely missing context or transitions. When Billy whines, "Your husband set me up!" we don't really know what he's talking about.
Then there's the matter of Billy's girlfriend, Natalie (Natalie Martinez). The film has established them with a rather terrific back-story, fairly good chemistry, and a few scenes that play as cohesive. Then, apropos of nothing, an explosion within the dynamic. Nothing makes any sense in this world, and the ground is constantly shifting toward an unreality which induces confused stares and eye-rolling.
Lastly, the ending beats of Broken City are a disaster, the entire enterprise collapsing upon itself. Something with Katy is again hinted at, the vague notion of "balance" and "justice" are thrown out, just to see if they'll stick, and a few folks get a comeuppance. Nowhere in this equation is logic or reason left any room to operate. There's a slightly hilarious scene where Billy is leaning on a source to tell him something, anything, and the guy shouts "stop hitting me!" In viewing Broken City we're all that guy, although it's even less fair, because we're the ones grasping in the dark for answers.