The Black List is one of the few remaining things in Hollywood that has an air of mystery about it. It’s a strange, exclusive little nook of the industry, one populated by quality film scripts that, for whatever reason, aren’t in production. The screenplays often spend years waiting to be picked up by a studio, an eventuality that becomes less likely as the scripts age, and younger, more relevant pups join them in the artistic pound. It’s a prestigious purgatory, from which movies like The King’s Speech, Juno, and 50/50 have escaped, leaving you to wonder how such fantastic writing can be left to unloved for so long.
Then a Black List alumnus like Broken City comes along, and you start to understand why a studio would exercise caution when spending millions on a shiny nugget that could turn out to be fool’s gold. A surface description of the film makes it sound deserving of far better than an unceremonious dumping amid the bottom-feeding competition of January (which has actually been uncharacteristically strong this year). It’s an adult thriller starring leads from two of 2012’s most successful films, has an experienced director at the helm, and a Black List stamp of approval on its script. In theory, it’s got everything going for it except a release date.
In practice, you can see why it is the initial excitement over Broken City’s spec script that didn’t save it from slipping into development hell, as writer Brian Tucker is only halfway to a really solid piece of grownup entertainment. Mark Wahlberg stars as Billy Taggart, an ex-New York cop just trying to make a living as a private eye in New York, doing typical New Yorker things, like watching the Knicks, supporting his girlfriend’s indie movie career, and making casual post-post-9/11 jokes. Tucker works to develop the city itself as a character, a la something like Gone Baby Gone, or 25th Hour, but his efforts translate into little more than namedropping of locations and landmarks.
The one responsible for the adjective in the title is Mayor Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe), a dirty dealer who’s main selling point in the tight upcoming election is that he’s the devil everybody knows. Having championed Taggart back when he was fired over a shooting seven years earlier, Hostetler hires Billy to find out whom the mayoral first lady is sleeping around with. As little more than a thug with a camera (and a good bit of debt that the city’s tax payers could cover), Taggart accepts. As is so often case, what starts as a simple job leads to Taggart running up against white-collar crooks, armed goons, and powerful development firms.
While putting Wahlberg at the center of this kind of plot might make you think pyrotechnics and shootouts are the film’s priority, Broken City is really more of a beachside conspiracy novel, one that keeps the gunplay and violence effectively reserved. Taggart isn’t some preternatural badass; he’s an average schnook, and an above-average detective on a good day. Wahlberg is actually perfect for this kind of character, as his brand of charisma (affectless and affable) is exactly what every airport bookstore gumshoe requires. Crowe is excellent too, as he seems well equipped for a late life career playing smooth talkers with barely suppressed rage.
Really, the caliber of the cast is Broken City’s biggest selling point, as Wahlberg is basically a wooden training dummy for folks like Catherine-Zeta Jones, Jeffrey Wright, and Kyle Chandler to bounce off of. The first half of the movie is just Taggart getting the lowdown on at least a half dozen different players, all of whom inevitably weave into the greater narrative, but there’s room for flavor between all the plot point establishing. Alona Tal plays Taggart’s assistant, Katy, and the two have a fun (mercifully platonic) chemistry, that could be the anchor for the further adventures of Billy Taggart.
Or so you might think, because while Broken City is pretty good at setting things up, when the time comes to bring it all together, the results are a bit of a mess. After a series of midpoint twists and reveals, motives and allegiances become harder to keep tabs on, and the film becomes clumsier with exposition as the conspiracy grows. I imagine many in my theatre identified greatly with Wahlberg’s constant look of bewilderment, as the movie’s brand of knotty plotting works well on paper, but less effectively on film.
It quickly becomes clear why Broken City spent so long in the bowels of development hell, as it plays like a film that has been heavily restructured and rewritten, but nowhere near to perfection. At the very least, one more pass on the script was needed, so that the crusading white knight character was named something, anything, other than Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper, showcasing a memorably awful haircut). The dialogue is hit or miss too, alternating between thoroughly juicy, and trying so hard to be pulpy, it’s like the actors are trying to spit out whole oranges. Meanwhile, Allen Hughes’ direction runs into the problem of overreaching at times, adding distracting movement to conversation scenes, which undercuts his actors.
The film ends rather appropriately, nobly going for thematic consistency instead of spectacle, but executing on its aspirations with an abruptness that could be mistaken for anti-climax. Broken City contains many good individual elements, but they never add up to a thoroughly satisfying whole. Thanks to its fine cast, the finished product lands a bare few inches above mediocrity. Thanks to a fine cast though, the finished product lands a bare few inches above mediocrity. It’s easy to understand why there was optimism surrounding the film when it was first pitched in 2008, but as is the case with a lot of politicians, it took four years to see that Broken City couldn’t make good on its full promise.