Brian Tucker’s script for Broken City made the prestigious “Black List” of best unproduced screenplays in 2008. At its best, though, the film strains heroically to achieve its Chinatown-level ambition and transcend its hackneyed elements: an alcoholic, disgraced cop with a tragic past; a powerful politician with a secret he will go to great lengths to protect; an adulterous trophy wife; a high-stakes land deal with enormous ramifications for an upcoming mayoral election. In spite of some punchy scenes, crackling dialogue, and fine performances, Broken City is hopelessly overmatched. It has Academy Award dreams, but a detective-show heart.
The ubiquitous Mark Wahlberg plays a dedicated cop whose career ended the moment he exceeded the boundaries of the law and killed a rapist and murderer who had been set free on a technicality. Years later, Wahlberg struggles to pay the bills as a low-rent private detective, snooping around windows hoping to snap pictures of cheaters in compromising positions. His fortunes change when New York mayor Russell Crowe wants a PI to investigate his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and identify her mystery lover in the days leading up to a tense mayoral election between Crowe and liberal challenger Barry Pepper. But the job ends up being about a whole lot more than simple adultery, and Wahlberg has to put together the pieces of a far-reaching conspiracy.
It doesn’t take a degree in screenwriting to guess that the complicated land-grab deal laboriously laid out in the film’s first act will figure prominently in the film’s third act, or that Wahlberg’s career-killing transgression as a cop will come back to haunt him. Broken City luxuriates in moral ambiguity and the grinning, convivial nastiness of Crowe’s performance in the early going, but it grows less compelling as Wahlberg and Crowe settle into stock hero and villain roles. The film tries to magnify the sins of the powerful into a noir-tinged exploration of the fractured soul of a city, but a lot of gritty detail and specificity gets lost in the process. Many of the elements introduced in the film’s overstuffed first act pay off all too tidily in its hokey final act, but one thing never pays off: the film’s tremendous, largely unrealized early promise.