Broken City: A smart, character-driven crime thriller

Broken City

In a broken city rife with injustice, ex-cop Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) seeks redemption — and revenge — after being double-crossed by the city’s most powerful figure, the mayor (Russell Crowe). Billy’s relentless pursuit of justice, matched only by his streetwise toughness, makes him an unstoppable force — and the mayor’s worst nightmare.

BROKEN CITY protagonist Billy Taggart is one of Mark Wahlberg’s richest screen roles. “The film’s script reminded me of those smart, character-driven crime thrillers that I grew up watching and loving,” says the Oscar-nominated actor.

Billy is an ex-New York City cop who loved his job and did it very well until he went too far while investigating a murder. Now, he’s a private detective, barely making ends meet, “when a call from the mayor offers an opportunity to regain his badge and gun,” Wahlberg explains. “The mayor thinks his wife is having an affair and he’s worried about it interfering with his chances for reelection. As Billy starts to investigate, he comes to realize there’s much more to this case than a cheating spouse, and that’s when the war between the mayor and Billy ignites.” It is this war that leads Billy to redemption.

“There is an edge to this story and to the way people speak to each other,” says Russell Crowe, who portrays Mayor Hostetler, a character that projects a powerful mix of charm and menace. “I look to be physically affected by projects I’m considering, and I sort of got goose bumps and started making decisions on behalf of the mayor straightaway while reading the script for BROKEN CITY. It’s a truly grown-up story.”

“The film really respects the audience’s intelligence,” notes Catherine Zeta-Jones, who portrays the mayor’s wife, Cathleen, who is much more than she seems. “Its smart dialogue moves like a bullet train right through the piece.”

“I read BROKEN CITY as a kind of contemporary Humphrey Bogart story, taking place against a backdrop of treachery and intrigue where everyone is ambitious in one way or another,” adds Jeffrey Wright, who portrays Commissioner Fairbanks, whose continuing doubts about Billy will change by the end of the latter’s journey.

Brian Tucker’s taut screenplay had an impressive pedigree, having earned a spot on The Black List, an industry clearinghouse for the best, yet-to-be-produced screenplays. “It has a lot of great action, twists and turns, and a dynamic narrative, but more important than that is its characters,” explains director Allen Hughes. “Billy Taggart jumped off the page as being very layered and challenging.”

BROKEN CITY fits squarely within the impressive body of work from Hughes. He and his brother Albert – known professionally as The Hughes Brothers — are renowned for their gritty, no-holds-barred films that place dynamic characters in challenging, if not impossible situations. Their films include MENACE II SOCIETY, DEAD PRESIDENTS and FROM HELL. Allen, inspired by Brian Tucker’s screenplay, was eager to make BROKEN CITY his next project. “Ultimately BROKEN CITY is a redemption story,” he points out. “Billy will go to any lengths to find justice for something that’s long haunted him.”

Hughes was more than surprised when the creator of these powerful and complex characters turned out to be very different from what he expected. “I was blown away when Brian, this scrawny 25-year-old kid walked in for our meeting. I could not believe that this young man, who looked barely 19, had written such a sophisticated, compelling, and layered story.”

Producer Randall Emmett shared the actors’ and Hughes’ passion for the story and characters. “I’ve always loved films about the underdog who stands up to the system,” says Emmett, who is partnered with George Furla (one of BROKEN CITY’s executive producers) in the prolific production company Emmett/Furla Films. “I was really excited by the fact that you never know where the story is going.”

Hughes admits that as he read the script, he immediately saw Mark Wahlberg in the role of Billy. “So I went out to Mark and we sat down and started the journey of making BROKEN CITY,” says the filmmaker.

“Allen sent the script to me and said, ‘I see you in this part; do you want to do this thing together?” Wahlberg remembers. Moreover, Wahlberg felt such a connection to the character and material that he came onboard as a producer, working closely with Hughes to put together the project.

“One thing that I love about Mark’s acting is that he embodies the true spirit of the underdog,” reveals Hughes. “There’s an endearing quality about him and when he smiles he lights up an entire room. Mark had never before done anything quite like this, and that also was interesting to me. Mark has this innate ability to surprise audiences, and that’s what his role in BROKEN CITY called for.”

Broken City

“I love the fact that Billy is unapologetic,” says Wahlberg. “He does whatever it takes to right the wrong he committed years ago. From his private detective agency in Brooklyn he watches what’s going on in the city and the life that he used to have, and he misses that. Investigating the mayor’s wife offers not only a big payday, but a chance to get back his old life.”

But as Billy soon learns, the mayor’s offer hides a much more sinister intent, one that will require Billy to summon inner resources untapped since his days as a cop.

Ultimately, he and the mayor will face off in a battle that will put Billy to the test. Hughes knew that a Wahlberg-Crowe on-screen confrontation would be electrifying. During his first meeting with Crowe, Hughes found that Crowe could hold court at a dinner party as masterfully as any seasoned politician. “He’s a riveting storyteller and it was the biggest surprise for me to mine that, because that quality of Russell has rarely been seen.”

Crowe didn’t base his performance on a specific public figure, instead opting to study the lives of several New York City officials. He explains: “I went back for the last fifty years and I looked at their schooling, where they came from and how they connected to people. BROKEN CITY’s Mayor Hostetler is part Queens and part Wall Street. He’s an absolute populist with elitist lifestyle habits that he’s come to appreciate and expect. We all know the old cliche that power corrupts, but it’s very interesting when the person that’s doing the corrupting believes that this is benign corruption for a higher purpose.”

Crowe brought not only his impressive skills but his larger-than-life persona to the role. “Russell is one of the greatest living actors, and he’s also very charming,” says Wahlberg. “On set, he was the mayor. He certainly charms my character Billy, but once he realizes the mayor is corrupt, Billy has got to take him down. There’s no more formidable opponent than Russell and the movie is really about us going at it.”

The catalyst for the Billy-Hostetler dynamic is the latter’s wife, Cathleen, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones. Her relationship with her husband is a complex one, as is often the case with real-life political couples. “Politicians’ wives sometimes put on a face to protect their partner,” notes Zeta-Jones. “To the outside world they are this quintessential first family, but a bright light sometimes reveals scandal and corruption. To play the role, I drew on this dichotomy. When you meet Cathleen, she is what every woman wants to be and has everything they would love to possess, but that is not what’s reflected behind closed doors. As the character evolves, you see why she wants to get out of this situation. Cathleen knows way too much, and she knows that Hostetler’s dealings and actions will destroy many people’s lives, including her own.”

Another character who’s much more than he seems is Commissioner Fairbanks. who hasn’t forgiven Billy for his past transgression, but begins to see that Billy has changed over the years. Time and again, Fairbanks has proven more than equal to the task of surviving in a tough, sometimes brutal political environment. Hughes tapped Jeffrey Wright for the role.

“Fairbanks is potentially as dangerous as anyone else — a shark among sharks — but there are certain moral boundaries that he respects,” explains Wright. “Allen [Hughes] and I discussed how mysterious he is and that he’s both an observer and manipulator of the action and, most importantly, that he’s a survivor who knows how to protect himself.”

Another survivor is Councilman Jack Valliant, the mayor’s fresh-faced opponent in the upcoming election. Barry Pepper, an Emmy winner for his role as Robert F. Kennedy in the mini-series “The Kennedys,” portrays Valliant. Valliant is pursuing evidence that could mean an easy victory for him — but he soon discovers that nothing comes easily when you face off against the mayor.

Natalie Martinez portrays Billy’s girlfriend Natalie, an aspiring actress. Their relationship becomes challenged because of their past. “Natalie is from the projects where you have to fend for yourself and really fight to get out,” Martinez explains. “Natalie is trying to become an actress and is hungry for that life. She is sometimes tough with Billy, who is trying to find value in what he’s done and who he’s become.”

The other woman in Billy’s life is his quick-witted assistant Katy Bradshaw, with whom he shares a comfortable banter and shorthand. “Katy is the place that Billy feels at home,” explains Alona Tal, who takes on the role. “He’s almost relaxed and open, and even funny; there’s a very different beat to Billy’s personality when he is with Katy.”

BROKEN CITY was shot on location in New York and, due to production logistics, in New Orleans, the latter doubling for the Big Apple. “BROKEN CITY is a New York movie in the classic sense that we shot most of the exteriors in New York.,” Hughes explains. “Our production designer, Tom Duffield, maintained a consistency from New York into New Orleans, and there was definitely a cohesion that was remarkable.”

During their first meeting to discuss the project, Hughes and Duffield sorted through images and discussed movies that featured New York, deciding what they would film in New Orleans and what absolutely had to be shot in New York. “We wanted to show the big panoramic views of New York from across the river or on the rooftops looking at some of New York’s iconic buildings,” says Duffield. ” In one scene shot from a penthouse balcony of the Palace Hotel at night (doubling for the Four Seasons) you can see both the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building in one shot. Those are the scenes that give the film a real iconic feel for New York.”

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