On the plus side, Broken City is much closer to being film noir than Gangster Squad, a movie that only got the suits right. It wrings DNA out of a lot of familiar hard-boiled movies of the 1930s and '40s—the wronged but morally ambiguous detective, corruption at high levels, and dangerous dames. That's about it for the plus side.
Perhaps all the film noir touches are accidents—just leftovers from one too many crime movies for director Allen Hughes and first-time writer Brian Tucker—because Broken City spoils what it does right with plenty it does wrong, and there's no resonance to anything any character ever does. It's as if these guys knew what the last two scenes looked like and worked backward. That's also a good way to paint yourself into a corner.
The wronged detective is Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg), a former NYPD cop booted from the force after he was acquitted of murdering an accused rapist. Self defense, they said. But the case was a hot-button issue, so the mayor (Russell Crowe) and the police chief (Jeffrey Wright) decided to cut their losses, and that meant cutting Billy. Now he makes ends meet as a private detective. Yes, they apparently still have those, though the glamour of it admittedly seems a little anachronistic.
Seven years after his acquittal, Billy is summoned to the mayor's office again: Find out who's schtupping my wife, hizzoner says, and I'll pay you $50,000.
There are a few ways Broken City could go from here, and regrettably, it tries most of them. The mayor's wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is having an affair. Or it's not just any affair—she's sleeping with a powerful political rival. Or maybe it's not an affair at all; maybe it's about information. And maybe the information could come back to haunt the mayor, or the police chief (now elevated to police commissioner), or even—dun Dun DUN—Billy himself.
The intended effect is to keep you in the dark about what's really going on; the actual effect is that you no longer care about what's really going on. The film spends so much time navigating blind corners that it has no time for the home stretch, so even when the mystery is solved, it's done quickly, matter-of-factly and underwhelmingly.
There is a lot of blame to be slung around because Broken City should at least be mediocre, and it does not reach that bar. As producer, Wahlberg is an easy target, especially since he hired himself to act in the picture, and then as the actor he hired, took the money and ran. Not that he's Captain Charisma as a general rule, but there doesn't appear to be even a latent fingerprint of someone working at his craft here. Crowe, saddled with bad hairstyles and a thick Queens accent, fares better only because he's putting forth more-than-requisite effort. It's still not a good performance. For that, you'd have to look to Jeffrey Wright, who has a lot more complexity—right up to his last line before the movie's unnecessary epilogue—than Broken City knows what to do with.
But ultimately, we should blame the script. Generally, if you're going to take your audience for a ride beyond point A to point B, it should serve a purpose. Why are we going to Montauk, in this case both literally and figuratively? None of the scenic routes in this movie help us get where we need to be. They're just helping Broken City clock in at more than 90 minutes.