Cut Rate Dick
“You fucked 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.
This doesn’t mean, necessarily, that you’ll forget about Billy’s various abuses of Natalie, as the film does, rather conveniently. It does mean that you follow along as he first stumbles into the mayor’s scheme and then works to extricate himself. It doesn’t help that you feel a couple of steps ahead of Billy, that he seems both too gullible and too brutal to warrant much empathy, and that his relationship with Natalie is so predictably fraught. Neither does it help that this relationship might have made for another movie entirely, given he’s provided with an incipient alternative, more plainly copacetic, partner in his devoted, spunky, very blond Girl Friday, Katy (Alana Tal).
That Billy doesn’t see what’s in front of him is key to his role in this formulaic film. He can’t see how he’s been shaped by his environment, the poverty and racism and violence that make everyone afraid and ambitious, mean and self-interested. His seeming generosity, his insistence that he means to do right by those wronged by the most powerful (say, Hostetler) only make Billy appear more ignorant, more at the mercy of the social and political forces around him. Even this might have made for a more compelling story, as Billy might have come to recognize his ignorance and his culpability. But it doesn’t. Instead, Billy comes to recognize, as he has always believed anyway, that he’s right and the system is wrong.
A primary component of this system is political, of course, and Broken City makes efforts to make its version of this insight seem topical. And so the mayor is running against a particularly telegenic, comic-bookishly named opponent, Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper), who makes an ethical argument against Hostetler’s ruthless real-estate deals and lowdown and identifiably rightwing—that is, villainous—Republican politicking.
In Broken City, the difference between villains and those who would thwart them is mostly schematic: Hostetler plays racquetball with Generic Rich Man Sam (Griffin Dunne) and castigates Commissioner Fairbanks, menaces his wife in their dressing room and bullies Jack in a debate. On the other side of town, Billy visits with Natalie’s still grateful parents and cajoles clients to get paid.
Billy’s lack of money appears the justification for his working for Hostetler, though he doesn’t appear to get this crucial character point until he’s so advised. While riding on a train to Montauk, supposedly secretly tailing Jack’s campaign manager Paul (Kyle Chandler), the terms change and become awfully clear at the same time. Paul actually addresses him, apparently taking him for the sanitation worker he claims to be and suggesting he ponder why it is that his long career and hard work have left him renting an apartment and not owning a home. Billy’s brow furrows, he pretends to focus on his newspaper, but oh dear, the gears are grinding. Maybe taking Hostetler’s payment isn’t such a smart business move as he thought.