Reel Reviews | Broken City


On the latest episode of Reel Shorts, guest critic, Cynthia Fuchs of PopMatters looks at director Allen Hughes gritty crime thriller, Broken City.

Cut Rate Dick

“You f*cked him.” So concludes Billy (Mark Wahlberg), after he sees his gorgeous girlfriend Natalie (Natalie Martinez) with her indie-movie costar Ryan (Justin Chambers). He has no basis for his conclusion, save for the fact that in their first movie, they act a sex scene over a kitchen counter and oh yes, at the screening after-party, the alcoholic Billy goes off his wagon, then embarrasses, upsets, and picks a fight with Natalie.

You won’t be surprised to hear that this leads to a standoff with Ryan, as well as long minutes of staggering through a drunken-tragedy montage. In another movie, this sequence might reveal the extent of Billy’s selfishness or maybe his essential psychic damage. But in Broken City, it makes him look like the sanest person in the room. For he lives inside a moral morass, you see, this place someone actually calls Broken City (which is also New York), and while he once—as a cop—did a very bad thing for what seemed a vey good reason, well, now he’s stuck with a girlfriend he doesn’t trust and a private eye business he doesn’t like, which only makes him like the people he follows around for his business, snapping photos of their betrayals and misadventures.

In fact, Billy’s problems with Natalie occupy very little screen time. You learn that they met when he was a cop in her project, that she lost her sister to a terrible crime, and that when she started acting, she changed her name in order to sound less Puerto Rican. You also learn, during a brief dinner scene where Natalie introduces Billy to her fellow actors, that neither of them is quite comfortable with their shared backstory, as they do their best not to answer questions about how a white cop might be “good to” a grieving Hispanic family and somehow end up with the teenaged daughter in his bed.

But still, Billy’s brokenness—his resentment, his violence—looks sympathetic in Allen Hughes’ movie (his first directing assignment without his brother Albert). This because it’s set alongside other, more venal sorts of brokenness, that of the calculating police chief-turned-commissioner Colin Fairbanks (Jeffrey Wright) and the utterly corrupt Mayor Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe), slick, smug, and running for reelection. The three men’s efforts to outsmart each other form the film’s central narratives, and because Billy comes with working-class-earnest-trauma credentials, he’s your guy. And when he’s compromised by the other two guys, when he’s hired by the mayor to investigate his duplicitous wife Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and also unwittingly set up a murder, and then enlisted by the commissioner in a scheme to get back at the mayor, Billy’s outrage becomes yours too.

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