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More smoke than substance in ‘Broken City’

By Gary Clift

“Murky,” I think we’d call the new movie “Broken City.”

It was intended as a political thriller and then released right after a presidential election, when everybody is absolutely sick of campaigning. It gives its audience a big hunk of a New York City mayoral debate, as if that has any prayer of being interesting. But what is especially odd is that the debate does nothing to advance the crime story. The debate, like several other passages in the film, is completely unnecessary.

The current mayor (Russell Crowe) once fired a policeman named Billy (Marky-Mark Wahlberg) right after a court dismissed a case against the cop for shooting a teen. While viewers are still puzzling over that we slip forward seven years to the re-election campaign and the mayor’s hiring of private eye Billy to get pictures of his wife with her lover.

After a political conversation on a train which doesn’t move the plot forward, Billy gets the pictures required and identifies the man as the campaign manager for the mayoral challenger. But before our hero can deliver the photos to the boss, Mrs. Mayor (Catherine Zeta Jones) tells the snoop that he doesn’t know what he is actually doing on this case.

At no time during the showing of this film did I ever know what Billy was doing here. The mayor already knows his wife is meeting with the campaign manager. He already knows who the manager is. Why does he give Billy $50,000 to take photos that prove nothing suggestive or damning? Why does the Mayor’s wife offer Billy $50,000 not to deliver the photos?

Then the campaign manager is shot in the streets. Billy arrives on the scene and is for some reason invited inside the man’s house where he meets with the police commissioner. The head cop knows Billy has been working for the mayor, and acts threatening. And then, right away, he asks the private detective to take home the challenger, who is also at the crime scene and who is distraught over his friend’s death.

Billy hears of another meeting—he’s always hearing about other peoples’ meetings—and goes to a house where some folks are shredding documents. But—for reasons never clear—they take to the trash one box unshredded. These documents, if made known to the public, might influence the close election race. But before Billy can do anything with the evidence, he is shot at and there is a car chase and the box is swiped from his trunk.

For reasons not clear, Billy then goes to see the son of a real estate developer who is the mayor’s pal. The son is distraught over the manager’s death. The son then gives Billy, for reasons that are never clear, a copy of a contract which, if made known to the public, may influence the course of the close election. But before we’re done with the investigation, there will be a couple of more pieces of damning evidence unearthed.

To give you some notion of what a mess the story is, there is a sub plot about Billy’s marriage to an actress who takes him to the premiere of her new film. In it she is featured in a risque sex scene that makes him wambly. Now here is an obvious cinematic parallel—the photos he took of the mayor’s wife meeting the manager and the movie sequence of his wife simulating copulation.

Billy is convinced the copulation was real. But the larger story depends on viewers assuming that the photos he has taken do not support the conclusion he has been asked to accept—that Mrs. mayor is having a sexual affair. And what makes this all the more confusing is that the business about Billy’s wife really doesn’t have any other significance to the main story. Neither does his drinking, about which much is made.

So there is more smoke than substance in “Broken City,” a movie apparently assembled by guys who don’t completely understand the logic of storytelling.

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