Like mobsters returning to the scene of a crime, in recent months Hollywood has been returning to the classic mid-century detective dramas they once tossed out with seemingly effortless grace.
The results of this back to the future approach have been less than stellar, though, with style trumping substance.
The problem is, as Mitt Romney discovered to his immense surprise during the last election cycle, that it’s not the mid-century anymore. What thrilled audiences in the 1940s and ‘50s makes them groan nowadays.
People evolve, attitudes change. History’s all very well, but you can’t live in it.
History becomes a problem for Broken City, the new cop drama starring Dorchester, Massachusetts native Mark Wahlberg, 41, from the opening frame. Aiming a gun at a hoodlum he knows to be a murderer and rapist, Billy Taggert (Wahlberg) is caught on camera administrating street justice to an unrepentant hoodlum in a shocking episode that will change his life.
Ten years later Taggert takes on the mantle of the standup Irish guy whose life is turned upside down by ruthless white collared thugs out to make a killing on the property markets. One of them has the dirt on Taggert’s extra-judicial killing and isn’t afraid to use it when the time comes.
If that set-up seems familiar to you, well it is. Broken City knows what you like and serves it to you straight, exactly the way that every other classic crime drama (with a twist) serves it, with a nice side order of revenge served ice cold.
For good measure they’ve hired the perpetually scowling Russell Crowe to bring some tough-guy gravitas to the increasingly macho proceedings. No one in the movies scowls with more manly vigor. In fact he’s so virile you almost forget he’s an actor.
Only the bright orange pan-stick foundation he wears (in tribute to Donald Trump?) in his role as corrupt mayor of New York City reminds you that he’s a Hollywood type at all.
In New York we’ve had Irish mayors, we’ve had allegedly gay mayors, we’ve had African American mayors, but to date we haven’t had the straight up gangster mayor that Crowe portrays in this pacy and atmospheric thriller.
“Billy is charmed by his larger than life persona,” Wahlberg tells the Irish Voice. “He’s really just a p***k to me, but he was real. And so it’s not the easiest movie to predict what’s going to happen or when it’s going to happen.”
He’s got that right. As mayor of New York City, Crowe always stays 10 steps ahead of his foes, including his latest mayoral challenger played by Barry Pepper.
Director Allen Hughes, working from a tight script by Brian Tucker, keeps you guessing who the real crooks are and who is working for who. It’s a set up that people who socialize with political leaders like Wahlberg know has a real life resonance.
“I took Allen to meet the mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, who was the former White House chief of staff,” Wahlberg says. “We went to his office and hung out when we were there promoting the film.”
That kind of high level access, which celebrities take for granted, gave him genuine insights into Broken City’s themes.
“I’ve known Rahm socially through his brother [top Hollywood agent Ari Emanuel]. So to see him in office and to hear his polices first hand in a very unfiltered way, I’m just very impressed with him,” Wahlberg says.
“If every city had a mayor like him we’d all be better off. There’s so much corruption that he’s dealt with.”
Getting in shape for the role meant slimming down, Wahlberg confesses. Famous for having bigger guns than the NRA, this was a tough request. But director Hughes was adamant.
“He said to me, ‘Oh man, what are you doing? You have to get your sexy on. That slim sexy look, what happened to that?’” Wahlberg laughs.
The tone of the Broken City recalls classic noirs from the 1940s, which was completely intentional. Billy Taggert is the kind of hard-bitten tough guy that your grandfather would have warmed to. He’s proud on the surface but damaged underneath, and he’s hardly aware he’s looking for a better life until he catches a glimpse of it.
We know Billy because we have seen him a million times before. He’s a cynic, and we already know that cynicism only takes up residence after your heart moves out. It’s what remains when nothing remains. It’s been the constant companion of private detectives in the movies since Humphrey Bogart was doing his rounds in a black Chrysler Imperial.
“I’ve played New York police officers on a number of occasions,” says Wahlberg. “I’ve had occasion to spend time with a lot of cops here and in Boston. The script was so well written that the writer really did most of the work. It really plays out as a kind of gangster movie.”
Irish viewers will notice that when the men in this film experience an emotional crisis, they’re constantly reaching for the Jameson. It’s the kind of throwback gesture we haven’t seen with quite this much frequency in years. Was it intentional?
“I don’t remember Jameson being product placement,” director Hughes sniffs, bristling at the impertinence.
“When I read the script I thought a 51-year-old white man wrote it, but then I discovered it was a 24-year-old black kid at Julliard. When I first read it he had all these exotic scotches that the mayor was drinking.”
No takers on the whiskey as a stand in for your emotions, then. Like the guys in their film, these guys can take themselves a bit seriously, which is why the film they have made can feel a bit dated.
It’s not that we don’t respect tough guys anymore. It’s just that we have started to wonder how tough they really are if they can’t take a joke or express themselves without a drink to start it.
It would help if the women in the film were given a chance to be anything other than ornamental doormats. As the mayor’s wife Catherine Zeta Jones is cast -- there is not other way to say this -- as an utterly gorgeous piece of high-class arm candy.
The truth is her character isn’t given much more to do in the film than act as a Chanel-suited decoy for what’s really happening, which is an epic waste of her considerable talent as an actress.
Interestingly, Wahlberg admits that women watching the film have often guessed who is really fooling who much sooner than most men. It’s the kind of intuitive ability in real life that’s missing from the female characters on screen.
“Women have intuitively felt that something was going on with the mayoral candidate and his campaign manager, but women are smarter than men,” he says matter-of-factly, almost revealing a crucial plot point.
It can’t save the film from that “haven’t I met you somewhere before” feeling that haunts almost every scene.
The truth is that having superhero martial arts skills, and the ability to dodge bullets shot at point blank range, while still somehow managing to get the girl in the final frame is getting more than a little tired.
In the end Broken City feels as dated as Humphrey Bogart’s black Chrysler Imperial.
Watch the trailer here: