Allen Hughes’ first feature to direct without his twin brother, Albert, Broken City evokes the sociological breadth and gallows humor of the Hughes Brothers’ early movies, Menace II Society (1993), Dead Presidents (1995) and the 1999 documentary, American Pimp. Wahlberg stars in this private-eye mystery as Billy Taggart, who is not the stealthiest gumshoe in the world. When caught sleuthing, Billy raises a further ruckus by pummeling the witnesses; he can’t grease any palms because he’s broke, and he’s broke because his clients keep giving him the slip on unpaid invoices. So it seems too good to be true when the mayor of New York (Crowe) personally hires Taggart to track down the lover of his wife (Zeta-Jones) two weeks before he runs for re-election. “Stick to the adultery plot – it’s sexier,” jokes the mayor, who knows the P.I. from his former days on the NYPD. But Taggart refuses to limit himself to matters of the boudoir. Naturally, there’s a dead body, an iceberg of corruption, and a cloud of doom looming over third-party innocents.
The role’s a bit boyish for Wahlberg, but the other actors steal the show anyway, particularly Pepper, tight-lipped and hollow-eyed as the incumbent-challenger Valliant, a self-described “rich Connecticut carpetbagger” with a Harvard pedigree and a social conscience; and Wright, subtly saucy here as the cold-blooded police chief, who seems to know a little too much about everything.
The plot, frankly, is a little confusing. Four or five subplots wander off into oblivion, and it’s occasionally hard to tell whether Hughes is winking at cliches or merely adhering to the genre handbook. In the first five minutes, we’re treated to pounding gavels, reporters swarming the courthouse steps, and jolly fat cats cavorting with decanters. But all of this cartoony nonsense must be forgiven, because Hughes manages to accomplish a feat I would have never thought cinematically possible: He creates a white-knuckle scene from a mayoral debate about zoning policy. You could’ve heard a Skittle drop in the packed house screening I attended. That, and Broken City’s terrifyingly realistic car chase – another throwback to vintage Hughes – are alone worth the price of admission.