In a revealing and inadvertently hilarious scene midway through Broken City, director Allen Hughes and screenwriter Brian Tucker offer up their dismissive view of the American independent film. When police detective turned private investigator Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) attends the premiere of his actress girlfriend's big-screen debut, he's faced with a movie that alternates between beach-set scenes filled with inanely affected dialogue and shot like a Lifetime movie of the week and sequences of rather graphic sex, titillation under the guise of art. Predictably, a delighted cast member enthuses about the movie's Sundance prospects.
Clearly a film like Broken City, which need not make the festival circuit to find its audience, is free to sneer at lower-budget productions, but, for all its high-toned glossiness, it's no less beholden to a different set of arty stylistics than the made-up film it mocks. Hughes's movie is so enamored of its shimmery, background-effacing nighttime photography (and its cut-up approach to filming action sequences) that it can't be bothered with delivering a competent genre set piece, the minimum requirement of the thriller form. Broken City isn't just a thriller, however, but a political thriller, and as such it spends massive amounts of time charting the dense web of connections and conspiracies that circle around corrupt New York City mayor Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe), without realizing either how these overplotted details sap the film of energy or how its political observations amount to little more than the lame suggestion that high office and corruption are often inextricably linked.
By contrast, the film seems far less interested in grappling with Taggart's haunted backstory, which might be a good thing, because it's no less conventionally dull than the political machinations. At the film's beginning, Taggart, then an NYPD detective, is on trial for killing a young man in the line of duty. He's acquitted but removed from the police force at Mayor Hostetler's urging, causing him to take up private practice. Seven years later, on the eve of a mayoral election in which the incumbent faces a tough challenge from an idealistic city councilman, Hostetler summons Taggart to his office and offers him $50,000 to find out who his wife is sleeping with. As Taggart takes on the assignment, he finds things aren't nearly as straightforward as he thought, with the mayor caught up in a questionable land development project and the campaign manager of his challenger suddenly turning up dead.
It's enough to drive a man to drink, and, in the film's lamest conceit, Taggart is also an alcoholic who (naturally) picks up the bottle for the first time in seven years halfway through the movie. Tortured by his long-ago shooting and invested personally in the mayor's land deal (which would displace many low-income residents, including his girlfriend's parents), Taggart must overcome his self-destructive tendencies and learn to do the right thing. But first, Hughes takes the opportunity to use his main character's epic bender to indulge in his favorite aesthetic techniques. Grafting an ellipse-heavy series of vaguely hallucinatory nighttime images together, the filmmaker gives us glowing impressionistic snatches of Taggart's boozy hell.
It's a technique that feels like little more than a bit of showing off in this instance, but proves far more questionable when transplanted to, for example, a car chase, in which Taggart speeds off while several baddies try to crash their own rides into him. By giving us nothing more than little glimpses, Hughes may suggest an air of pretty menace, but he does little to make the sequence work as a legible genre scene. Still, beyond these moments of light visual experimentation, it's hard to see where the director's interests lie. If he indulges his screenwriter's penchant for meticulously dull plotting, it's at least something to keep the narrative moving perpetually forward, and while the film is far from unpleasant to watch, it ultimately feels both overly stuffed and empty, as superficially complex as any set of brain-bending political machinations and as surface-level pretty as Wahlberg's head framed against a bleary nighttime cityscape.