Most critics despise the January-March release lulls, where studios quietly release their inexpensive, low-fi actioners. Personally, I love it. Movies like "Broken City" are why. It's a silly noir brought to polished heights by a most appropriate (if obvious) cast and crew - Mark Wahlberg as the violent everyman, Russell Crowe as the corrupt politician, Jeffrey Wright as the surly police commissioner; with always-good-never-great helmer Allen Hughes ("Menace II Society", "Dead Presidents") behind the camera. Nothing about it is extraordinary. But just about all of it is entertaining.
And when I say this is a noir, I don't mean in an oblique sort of way; the way "Arbitrage" or "Zero Dark Thirty" is a noir. No, Mr. Hughes goes all out with his genre conventions. Not only is Wahlberg a detective; but he also goes so far as to call himself a private eye. "Private eyes still exist?" It's a quip from a fellow character, but it's clearly got a metatextual edge to it. If you know the type of Humphrey Bogart movie this is riffing off of, you already know Wahlberg used to be a cop. But shooting an unarmed man in the face cost him that gig. Now, to be fair, that unarmed man raped and murdered the teenage sister of his girlfriend, but, as a prosecutor notes, its "still murder, even when the police do it." So he's troubled, tortured, and hasn't had a drink in seven years. As such, he never seems to hang out in daylight, and, like the protagonists in almost all good noir's, he's the perfect patsy for a set-up.
Now, in light of the unending cliches described above; it’s worth noting that some of Hughes’ conceits are almost revolutionary. Twists and turns regarding certain character’s sexuality give the film an interesting angle; but it’s the treatment of Wahlberg’s assistant Katie that feels "progressive," for lack of a better term. Intelligent, quick-witted, and eminently attractive, she’s never once saddled with a love interest or a whiny monologue about a lost boyfriend. She’s simply good at her job, and independent in thought. It should be commonplace, but in the male-dominated action field, it feels downright revolutionary.
With glossy, cinemascope camerawork and liberal-as-it-is-cynical political commentary (much of the film revolves around a plan to screw many of the citizens out of affordable public housing,) Hughes seems to be riffing more on the post-noirs of the 70s - "Chinatown," "The Long Goodbye," "Night Moves" - than he is with the films that defined the genre. It’s a good fit. In fact, it may be time for noir to make a comeback. In a generation where every tragedy gets its own "Truther" movement, and where the CIA can’t even get its story straight in regards to a Hollywood movie, (much less foreign policy;) it hardly feels over-the-top to have a Mayor employing PI’s to spy on his wife (no points for guessing that Crowe’s assignment sends Wahlberg to fall for femme fatales, crooked cops, and then off the wagon.)
If anything, the film leans a bit too hard towards its "fuck the (conservative) power" angle. Because on one hand, it’s intriguing in its refusals to sentimentalize or ingratiate itself with the audience: Wahlberg starts drinking again, alienates his girlfriend, commits some shocking acts of violence, and all those loose ends - normally apologized for and rectified by the end of such films - are left untied. On the other hand, this is a movie where the "good-guy" Democrat Mayoral candidate is named Jack Valliant. Sometimes you’ve just got to accept the good and look past the bad, or in this case, the obvious.