Politics at the Movies

January can be an odd time at the movies, with some of the most varied releases showing up. On the one hand you have the serious award contenders slowly rolling out across the country, having had Christmas releases in Los Angeles and New York City in order to qualify for various competition deadlines. While on the other hand you tend to see the flotsam and jetsam of projects with low expectations and those that haven’t lived up to studio hopes for release at busier times of the year. Looking at two of this week’s new releases shows us more about the latter categories than the former.

Broken City Directed by Allen Hughes

On paper, a film about corruption in a New York mayoral race, with a cast that includes Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jeffrey Wright, and Barry Pepper probably had a lot of people pretty excited. Somehow it managed to incorporate a list of producers that’s longer than some cast lists, with 21 people cited and 10 listed as Executive Producers (typically the folks writing the checks). It has a script that’s full of corruption, scandal, real estate deals, conflicts of interest, and good old fashioned private investigation work. It also has up to the moment touches like a Mayor’s wife (Zeta-Jones) attending a celebration of legal gay marriage in the state.


However, on screen, the entire enterprise is a mess. Oddly, it feels like a poorly adapted novel but appears to have been written for the screen by first time writer Brian Tucker. That feeling comes from there being a little too much going on, with too many significant characters and too many sub-plots. It’s not that it’s difficult to follow, it just trips over itself with inconsistencies in elements of the story that don’t even need to be there.


For example, there’s a point in the movie when Wahlberg’s ex-cop turned private eye Billy Taggert breaks up with his girlfriend. It’s a public yelling match full of recriminations and lines like (paraphrased) “We’ve been broken for a long time!” Which is problematic given that, up until that point, we’ve only seen them being supportive of each other and mutually understanding. She’s an actress and he doesn’t approve of her new film, or what he suspects regarding her relationship with her co-star. But neither the girlfriend, the indie film she’s made, nor the others involved in the film have any relevance to the main plot of “Broken City” – you could put a line through all of this and not affect the story at all. It may have been that at one point there was a connection in the script but in the final version she seems to be there just to give Taggert a home life, with no upside and multiple downsides.


The main plot involves Taggert being hired by the Mayor (Crowe) to investigate his wife’s alleged infidelity. But this blossoms into a convoluted set of circumstances involving the other candidate in the upcoming election (which is just days away), his campaign manager, the police commissioner, and a real estate developer and his son. Everybody has dirt on everybody else, in some way, and yet very little of that dirt seems to be acted upon.


This is a story in which multiple people make reference to a single incriminating document, in a manner that implies that they must know what it contains, and yet they tell Taggert to find it without giving him much of a clue as to what it might be. Meanwhile, the document contains the kind of revelation that’s specific enough that one could simply whisper it to a member of the press and it would likely get uncovered from public records without the original document ever needing to be found.


Individual performances aren’t bad, especially if one looks at stand-alone scenes and ignores certain inconsistencies between them. (It’s also one of those films where somebody who is staggeringly drunk can sober up in an instant following one important phone call or one cold water dunking.) Wahlberg carries his part relatively well but most of the rest of the cast isn’t really given much to do and it makes one wonder what some of the other major talent saw in the project to begin with, except to reinforce the idea that it all looked far better on paper.
The Last Stand Directed by Jee-woon Kim

By comparison, on paper “The Last Stand” couldn’t be much simpler. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his first starring role since playing the lead in California politics, is Ray Owens, sheriff of a small town on the Arizona/Mexico border. He’s on his day off (for no other reason than that it makes for a few good one-liners) when an escaped drug cartel boss makes a Taco Bellesque run for the border. It’s an almost impossible to spoil plot as that’s essentially it, and even that probably overstates the underlying concept and appeal of the movie, which is essentially just Schwarzennegger-star/action-comeback.


There’s more going on of course, but it’s just action context and stereotypical casting: There’s the earnest FBI agent (Forest Whitaker) who lost the prisoner (in a prison transfer described as under the radar, but which involved a large convoy of vehicles), a band of hired guns aiding the cartel leader’s escape (led by Peter Stormare in scenery chewing mode), and comic relief in the form of Luiz Guzmán as one of Owens’ deputies and Johnny Knoxville in the village idiot/court jester role as the local crazy gun collector.


But this is all about Schwarzenegger as action star and whether or not he can still pull that off. The pleasant surprise is that he can – albeit at a somewhat toned down level and pace. Schwarzenegger has a better sense of what he can and can’t deliver as an actor than as a politician.


He’s 65 and this is a good role for him – Owens isn’t an action hero wannabe sheriff, he’s a big city career cop in virtual semi-retirement in a one stoplight town where a bad day likely involves underage drinking and cow tipping. And he’s still a bulky guy – so the kinds of stunts he does (and he did many of his own) are less to do with speed and more to do with mass: He busts through doors and delivers a heavy punch, and if he outruns anybody, it’s in a car and not on foot.


Owens isn’t the killing machine we’ve seen from Arnold before, here he’s the veteran who’s seen a lot of bad things go down in worse places, who simply doesn’t have in him the quitting gene. As such he’s one of cinema’s most appealing archetypes – the reluctant hero with a past that imbues him with the necessary skillset to take on whatever’s thrown at him. It’s the same basic formula that has worked so well recently for (60 year old) Liam Neeson, and a downsized set of expectations that (66 year old) Sylvester Stallone could gain from.


There are no surprises here – except perhaps how solid some of the action scenes are, aside from the fighting and shooting. This is Jee-woon Kim’s first English language film and, through a pair of translators and a lot of body language, he’s crafted a decent action film filled with authentic stunts and real cars being driven by real people. It’s still a film in which a fast car and a driver in a hurry always seems to have enough spare power that a quick gear shift will press them into their seat yet again – but at least we’re not being subjected to constant CGI and wires.
Which isn’t to say that this is a great film – far from it. But it works and it does so by managing one’s expectations and delivering exactly on its promise. If the basic idea of Schwarzenegger as a small town sheriff in a pitched battle with a runaway drug lord appeals to you on almost any level, then you’ll probably enjoy the film at some level also. This is the upside to the downside of January.

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