So broken that it takes a diagram to untangle it
Here is my one-paragraph review of the new crime thriller Broken City, directed by Allen Hughes (of the Hughes brothers) and starring Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe, and Catherine Zeta-Jones: It's awful. The acting is unimpressive, the tone is wildly uneven, and the plot is terminally nonsensical. The movie is, in short, broken.
Now, if you don't trust my take; or are really, really in the mood for a little Mark Wahlberg on a big screen; or are for any other reason planning to go see the movie you should stop reading here. Because what follows is not a review; it's an autopsy. Broken City—which made a satisfyingly paltry $8.3 million over the long weekend—is a film of such narrative, emotional, and moral incoherence that it requires one to reconstruct not merely what went wrong, but what actually happened. For that reason, I'm presenting essentially one, long (illustrated!) spoiler.
Wahlberg plays Billy Taggart, a New York cop who, in the opening scenes, beats a murder rap for shooting an acquitted-on-a-technicality rapist/murderer, but is forced to resign quietly from the force. Fast forward seven years, and he's now a private eye, snapping photos of in flagrante spouses through bedroom windows. He's approached by the corrupt, incumbent mayor (Russell Crowe, disconcertingly blond), who is in a tough race against a reformist challenger (Barry Pepper) and is convinced that his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is having an affair. He hires Billy to find out with whom, before the story gets out and ruins his chances of reelection.
Billy follows the mayor's wife to an assignation with the chief of staff (Kyle Chandler) of the mayoral challenger(!). He reports back to the mayor what he's found, and shortly thereafter, the chief of staff is found shot dead in the street. Billy has unwittingly set the man up to be murdered...
But! It turns out that the mayor's wife and the opposing chief of staff weren't having an affair. They were just extremely close, longtime friends, and somehow no one else in the movie was aware of their friendship. It will turn out that the chief of staff was having a secret affair, but it was with his boss, the mayoral challenger(!). The mayor's wife is having a secret affair too, but it's with another of the mayor's political enemies(!), the police commissioner played by Jeffrey Wright. (It goes unremarked that Billy is too inept a private eye to uncover any of this.)
But back to the mayor's wife and the opposing chief of staff: Though they weren't sleeping together, they were plotting against her husband, who is involved in a crooked land deal involving the sale of community housing for billions of dollars. The problem is that, although each describes the other as his/her "source," neither one has any actual evidence that would make the charge stick. The chief of staff was hoping to get this evidence from a younger man he mentored in college (James Ransone), who has a bad relationship with his abusive father (Griffin Dunne), a real-estate developer who is the mayor's biggest financial supporter and also his secret business partner in the land deal.
The film consists of Billy pinballing off these various characters, asking the wrong questions (or, in a few striking instances, none at all), drawing inaccurate conclusions, and getting that Wahlberg-y look of impenetrable befuddlement that was a specialty early in his career (Boogie Nights, Three Kings, etc.). Finally, he stumbles upon the developer's son, who gives him the evidence he needs to nail the mayor. (Now, given that Billy had been hired by the mayor to finger a political opponent who subsequently wound up murdered, you'd think he would have had enough evidence to cause some trouble already, especially given that the police commissioner wants the mayor out of the picture. But no one really seems to consider this option.)
Did you have trouble following this? So did I, which is why I drew myself this visual aid (apologies for the quality):
Alas, I couldn't figure out a way to squeeze in the movie's romantic subplot: Billy's girlfriend (Natalie Martinez) is the sister of the girl who was raped and murdered by the man Billy killed in retribution all those years earlier. She's also an actress who is starring in an indie film, which makes Billy uncomfortable because he's a tough New Yorker who doesn't like fey, beret-wearing (literally!) Hollywood types. Things go from bad to worse when he attends the movie premiere with his girlfriend, and sees the sex scene that she performed in, and assumes she must be fucking her costar, and falls off the wagon and gets blind drunk, and they break up. One imagines that they'll get back together, or that his abrupt descent into alcoholism will have some negative consequence or narrative purpose, but neither of these things happens either. The girlfriend never appears onscreen again, and his extreme drinking doesn't seem to pose him any problems. At the end it's abruptly suggested that he has a romantic future with his much-younger-seeming office assistant.
So there you have it. Broken City: too much nonsense to fit into a single diagram.