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Non-Review Review: Broken City

Broken City seems like an ironic title for a movie that seems to take so much pride in being functional. Broken City is a political investigative thriller, a subgenre that has produced any number of genuinely classic films. However, while Broken City doesn’t really excel in any true sense, it does take a great deal of care in making sure that everything works, that everything is assembled with enough care, and that there’s no real discordant note to be heard. Broken City isn’t a very good film on its own merits, but it manages to avoid being an overly bad one.

Broken marriage...

Broken marriage…

I do occasionally feel like I’m being harsh – that I’m using “functional” in a purely dismissive or pejorative sense. That’s not really fair. There are a lot of films that don’t work nearly as well as Broken City. There are a lot of solid movies that ruin everything by putting a single foot wrong. It takes a great deal of effort and consideration to construct a movie that simply works as efficiently as Broken City. It is a movie that knows what it is about, knows how to go about it, and doesn’t mess up horribly along the way.

That’s not an inherently bad thing. Broken City is perfectly watchable. It has all the necessary moving parts to construct a political thriller. Mark Wahlberg is not the most diverse actor around, but he can be put to exceptional use. Broken City makes sure to keep him working within recommended guidelines, never pushing him too far, but not quite letting him sleepwalk through it. Russell Crowe is solid as a power-hungry mayor. He’s not overly melodramatic and doesn’t chew through too much scenery, but he’s also not too bland or generic.

Being taken for a ride?

Being taken for a ride?

Even the plot of Broken City is constructed in a mostly functional manner, designed to fit together like IKEA furniture. There are no loose ends, no narrative cul de sacs. Indeed, for a political conspiracy thriller, Broken City is remarkably linear. We know who the bad guy is from the moment he appears. In fact, you probably guessed it from the description above. There’s never a genuine attempt to mislead or distract the audience, and there’s never any sincere attempt to throw us off the scent. One thing leads to another, leads to another. It is efficient.

Of course, you might note that twisty plot mechanics are the beauty of conspiracy thrillers, that having a linear political investigative movie like this is like straightening out a curly straw. There’s a fair amount of logic to this argument, and Broken City never feels as adventurous or as subversive as it should. However, it also allows Broken City to avoid the pitfalls of a misjudged twist or an awkward revelation. Again, this genre is one where a movie can be ruined by one misplaced step. Broken City decides that discretion is the better part of valour, and opts to stick to the well-travelled path.

Cracked...

Cracked…

This, of course, brings us to the problems implicit in this approach. The film is predictable. It is quite obvious where everything is going from the second meeting of Mark Wahlberg and Russell Crowe. Then it gets a little monotonous. The movie essentially spells out what the grand conspiracy is before revealing what the big conspiracy is. There’s exposition to make sure we don’t lose track of the most straight-forward hustle ever. Indeed, the movie literally offers us a convenient diagram to help the slower members of the audience figure out what’s going on.

As such, Broken City loses part of its appeal, feeling too safe and too rational – almost afraid to gamble for fear of messing up. As a result, the movie’s moments feel a little overly rehearsed or a little too convenient. Indeed, the lead character’s central moral dilemma feels more like a technicality rather than any sincere moment of reflection or introspection. We know how things are going to play out, because Broken City isn’t going to deviate too far from the norms of these kinds of films.

A city governance of Crowes...

A city governance of Crowes…

So that’s really the best and the worst of what can be said about Broken City, that is a functional political thriller. There are minor fluctuations here and there, but nothing outside of standard deviation. Alona Tal does a nice job with a character who exists to simply spout exposition. As noted above, Russell Crowe is quite decent.

The biggest problem with the film – discounting its predictability – is the way that it film relies a little too heavily on stereotypes and clichés to tell its stories. Our lead character’s girlfriend falls in with a bunch of typically douchebag “metrosexual” liberal hipster types, against which our “macho” lead can be contrasted. Our conservative mayor likes hunting and is explicitly homophobic, while making a tidy profit for himself. His liberal challenger is fighting to resist the urge to “go negative”, and holds his secrets of his own.

Broken down...

Broken down…

These are all fairly generic and fairly crude stereotypes, and they feel a bit lazy. I can understand why Broken City resorted to using them, as they are functional and efficient, but they rob the film of any real sense of nuance. Given that we are supposed to be watching a political thriller, nuance and ambiguity should be welcomed. Instead, using these sorts of broad and cheap portrayals feels like a disservice to the subgenre. After all, a mystery is no fun if the details aren’t rich enough to properly explore.

Broken City winds up feeling kind of bland. It’s not fundamentally broken. It works quite well as a conventional conspiracy thriller. There’s no sense of an out-of-place element or ingredient, and perhaps that’s the problem. There’s no spark, there’s no real sense of excitement of danger. There’s no real sense that the film is going for broke.

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