** (out of four)
There’s no need to compare other corruption stories to “Broken City” because the new movie from director Allen Hughes (his first without brother and fellow “Menace II Society” director Albert) nods to all of them. If you’ve seen a story, on a big screen or a small one, about a corrupt politician and the person he or she sets up, you’ll find “Broken City” neither fascinating nor surprising. It’s just superfluous.
The corruption’s not a spoiler, of course. The trailers for the film, in which Mark Wahlberg stars as Billy, an ex-cop-turned-private-investigator hired by New York City Mayor Hostetler (Russell Crowe) to find out who’s sleeping with the mayor’s wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones), clearly acknowledges that the mayor has a hidden agenda. The commercial even shows a major character who gets murdered.
Perhaps this concession wouldn’t matter if “Broken City” unraveled the culture of corruption that exists no matter how many people get caught in the act. No, as Hostetler squares off against his ridiculously named opponent, Councilman Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper), the script from first-time writer Brian Tucker offers nothing about preventing future abuses of power or the unethical temptations of a system in which it may be increasingly difficult to get anything done the honest way. In an early sequence it's clear Billy owes the mayor a favor but he also knows the guy isn't 100 percent clean, so Billy's persistent gullibility is simply frustrating for viewers. He's also not as conflicted as he should be to make things interesting.
“I take pictures … I don’t get paid to think,” Billy says, and that’s part of the problem. Even if the film’s ads act as if the pursuit of truth is a bigger deal than the deception, “Broken City”—which lacks the sense of place and forward momentum of Hughes’ best work—requires us to sit and wait indifferently until the big and ultimately underwhelming showdown between the rogue P.I. and dirty elected official.
This sort of thing happens all the time in reality and in movies. “Broken City” misses a chance to ask tough questions: How much does a large city really respond to and care about the issues plaguing poor neighborhoods? And how much do citizens care if a few people are oppressed to benefit the majority?
Like Billy, the movie means well but isn’t that smart. Unlike Hostetler, “Broken City” shows little interest in getting its hands dirty.
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