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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014

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Russell Crowe and Mark Wahlberg star in "Broken City."
Russell Crowe and Mark Wahlberg star in "Broken City."

"Broken City" delivers decent but derivative detective drama

Have you ever seen "Chinatown?" If you haven't, you should. Right now, if possible. Roman Polanski's classic detective noir is filled with brilliant performances, a twisty plot, authentic period – as well as genre – style and an ending that hits the viewer like a cinderblock to the stomach (that's meant as a good thing). It has a pretty confident spot on my list of all-time favorite movies.

"Broken City," a hard-edged detective drama starring Mark Wahlberg and Russell Crowe, is pretty much "Chinatown," albeit moved into modern times and across the nation to New York City. I suppose if first-time screenwriter Brian Tucker was going to cheat off someone else's work, it makes sense to choose one of the best movies ever made. It just ensures that "Broken City," even with its overqualified cast, quick pace and political intrigue, won't feel particularly fresh.

Wahlberg plays Billy Taggart, a disgraced former cop trying to get his life back on track running a struggling private detective agency. Despite having to nag his employers for payment, life is edging toward normalcy for Jake Giddes – pardon me, Billy Taggart. That is, until he receives a call from the city's powerful mayor, Nick Hostetler (Crowe), asking Billy to spy on his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones, underutilized but also overacting), who he assumes is having an affair. It's reelection season, and according to Hostetler, the only thing worse than voters thinking he’s a bad politician is voters thinking he’s a weak husband. 

After some quick snooping, Taggart finds out that Mrs. Hostetler is not only having an affair, but she's having it with the campaign manager (Kyle Chandler from "Zero Dark Thirty") for her husband's political rival, Jack Valliant, played by Barry Pepper. He presents his evidence to the mayor, seemingly closing the case, but when the manager ends up dead in the middle of the night, Taggart gets pulled into a web of under-the-table political deals, hidden motives and cold-blooded power plays.

Tucker's screenplay, a one-time member of Hollywood's black list – an annual compiling of Hollywood's best unproduced screenplays – paces itself nicely, immediately dropping the audience into Taggart's highly publicized police drama and putting the character on the hot seat. The later process of digging up the dirt – first on Hostetler's wife, then on Hostetler himself – scatters revelations at a solid rate without sacrificing intrigue or interest.

It's just a shame the end result of Tucker's convoluted maze of motivations and secret ties is so obvious. Even if it wasn't a close cousin to "Chinatown," those uninitiated with Polanski's L.A. noir will probably be able to pick out the bad guy. When the main political rival's name is Valliant and the morally ambiguous mayor's name sounds vaguely like "hostile," it's fairly easy to predict which one we'll end up rooting against by the last act.

"Broken City" tries to give everyone enough dirt to create an interesting moral conflict, but it doesn't lead to much. The movie's big trump card reveal near the end is rather predictable, and Taggart's few character flaws – a shaky relationship with an indie actress (Natalie Martinez) and a spat of alcoholism – are mostly forgotten for the sake of tying up the tangled political mystery.

The story doesn't offer up much new, but "Broken City" thankfully presents it with enough panache and intrigue to rise it above forgettable. Working for the first time without his brother Albert, director Allen Hughes ("Menace II Society" and most recently "The Book of Eli") brings a chilled, slick menace to the proceedings, aided by the techno-industrial score provided by the husband-wife-brother team of Atticus Ross, Claudia Sarne and Leo Ross. Tucker's dialogue also provides a decent amount of sharp, snappy moments that hint at why such an impressively deep cast (whose strong presence is much appreciated) would take on such a formulaic story.

For being so rote, however, "Broken City" never bored me, and I was always interested to see where it went next, even if it was exactly where I expected. Worse things have happened, especially during the sad pathetic cinematic wasteland otherwise known as the January release schedule. If anything, it gets points for reminding me how much I want to watch "Chinatown" now.

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