“Do private eyes still exist?” – Broken City
This line was essentially spoken 67 years ago in The Big Sleep when Vivian Sternwood Rutledge (Lauren Bacall) first met Phillip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart). “So you’re a private detective? I didn’t know they existed, except in books.” The Big Sleep is one of my all-time favorite movies. It rests on the very top of my DVD shelf. I have seen at least 5, 6 times all the way through. And here’s the funny thing – I never quite remember what it’s about.
Don’t misunderstand, I remember what it’s about. Sure. It’s about Bogey & Bacall exchanging repartee and seductive glances and falling in love. It is about Martha Vickers. It is about smoking cigarettes and drinking brandy. It is about a wicked hot scene in a bookstore with Dorothy Malone. But what it’s about on the surface, well, that’s trickier to remember. Something having to do with a guy gone missing that Bogey is hired to find, I think, but that’s not really what anyone remembers when it comes to The Big Sleep. Go ahead. Ask ‘em, and they’ll tell you that even when the movie ends they can’t quite remember who did what or even what itself was but hell be damn sure they’ll remember this.
Broken City, directed by Allen Hughes with grit but not much imagination, is all about a private eye, Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg), forced into that way of life when his career in the NYPD ends after a shooting that he may or may not have done in cold blood. Now, seven years later, into his hard-boiled existence walks the city mayor, Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe), re-proving that the pinnacle of luxury is a decanter of scotch in your office. His wife (Catherine Zeta Jones, withheld rather than vamping) is cheating on him. He wants Billy to find out who “the other guy” is and get pictures.
Billy needs the cash and so he does. Turns out “the other guy” is the campaign manager (Kyle Chandler) of his rival for the mayoral seat of New York, the epically named Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper), for the election that is in but (gasp!) seven days time. Hey, Billy’s just in it for the money, but this will go well beyond the money and into the obligatory web of lies and/or deceit.
Not to mention Billy has a comely spouse (Natalie Martinez), an actress, on the homefront who appears to exist solely so fun can be made of metrasexuals and indie movies and establish that Billy has been on the wagon for the seven years of their relationship. Which means……but you can probably figure that out, though you probably will be surprised how quickly Billy can swing from falling down drunk to stone sober without so much as a piece of toast when the plot requires it. (His spouse is also completely forgotten once her presence is no longer required.)
And that is really what Broken City is all about – the plot. Everything is in service of the plot, the shockingly standard issue plot. Private eye movies of yesteryear used to be about so much more than plot. They used to be about character interaction and atmosphere. But nowadays it seems that every movie of this ilk needs to have an overarching theme regarding America in her present form – thus, this is less a story of Billy Taggart than of Billy Taggart accidentally meandering into by-the-numbers political corruption and not only saving his soul but the citys soul. (The one really good line in the film is Hostetler saying: “I want Staten Island’s vote without having to go there.” Ouch. That hits home, huh? And this film wrapped shooting BEFORE Hurricane Sandy, which is terribly telling.)
There is a character I have not mentioned. She is Katie, Billy’s secretary, played marvelously by the unknown-to-me Alona Tal. She is a fireball, supplying energy to a movie that is mostly depleted of it, cracking wise and working as a sensational counterpoint to Wahlberg’s downbeat, annoyed, “I’d-rather-be-watching-the-Knicks” twenty-tens version of a gumshoe. I adored the sequence when she was pressed into service to help with Billy’s tailing of the mayor’s wife. When Tal is onscreen, the plot stops for a moment to wondrously (her word) luxuriate in minutia. When Tal is not onscreen, it’s lethargic artifice full speed ahead!
There were movie private eyes 67 years ago, there are movie private eyes today and I assume that in 2080 there were still be movie private eyes. So hopefully when Mark Wahlberg’s grandson is playing one the film he is in will remember no one cares about the underwater bubble city civic malfeasance and just focus on painting between the lines.