Broken City has extremely high aspirations for itself. It desperately wants to be one of those smart, fast-paced thrillers that leads normally sane people to stay up late loudly arguing over its ending, but the final product isn't that engaging, surprising or even thought-provoking. If there are heated discussions about any of it, they'll likely include theories about why the film isn’t better.
Honestly, that sucks. Most of the films released every year don’t contain anywhere near the level of thought this one does. Broken City makes a serious effort to give the audience complex, multi-layered gray area characters. It takes aim at politics, the media, people who read the New York Post, people who read the New York Times, Wall Street, Main Street and even overly sexual art house films, but somewhere in the midst of tackling all of that, it loses sight of the fact that its primary narrative really isn’t that good. Even worse, its characters-- while well-drawn--aren’t really very fun to watch.
The most important of those dull characters is Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg). He was a proud cop for the NYPD back in the day, but after gunning down a suspected murderer and rapist, he was forced to resign from the force and take a job as a private investigator. Seven years later, he’s contacted by Mayor Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe) to do a little job. The mayor's wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is cheating, and he wants to know who she’s doing it with by the time the polls open for his reelection bid in less than a week.
What follows is a chaotic mess of back-stabbings, double-crosses, media manipulations and vicious right hands. Unfortunately, the proportions are all off. Sometimes we're given every single detail we could possibly want to know about a situation, and sometimes there's barely enough information to follow along, let alone predict where it might actually be going. Some of the characters behave in ways people will have expected all along, and some of the characters make sharp, right hand turns for strange and inexplicable reasons. It’s just a big mess, and occasionally, it doesn’t even logically make sense.
The key to The Usual Suspects or Murder On The Orient Express or King Of New York or any other successful and complicated thinker is that they leave a little Hansel and Gretel trail of bread crumbs throughout that makes a viewer say, “Ohhhhh! That’s why…”. Broken City doesn’t do that, and its reveals, which may have sounded good on paper, don’t have any real impact. They’re either so obvious from the beginning that there’s barely point in even acknowledging them, or they come from so far in left field that they’re borderline infuriating. Plus, half of them were spoiled by an idiotic marketing campaign hellbent on spelling it all out.
There are no bonus points for trying hard. In the end, a film is only measured by how enjoyable it actually is to watch, and on that count Broken City is closer to failure than it is to mediocrity. It’s less watchable than A Haunted House. I wish that wasn’t the case, but it is.