MAJOR DISCLAIMER: Since these scripts, bought or not, are currently unproduced and/or in the midst of long, tedious development processes, they may not make it to the screen for up to three years, if ever. You should know that the synopsis contains MASSIVE, EARTH-SHATTERING SPOILERS, even though this screenplay may not resemble the finished film (if any) in any way. Read at your own risk.
Secondary Disclaimer: I refer to what follows as “coverage” by the loosest definition of that term. In keeping with this blog’s tradition, I’ve crammed the notes so full of rancorous rants, it’s 1/10th as concise as actual coverage, almost falling into the category of a review. However, since I’ve included the loglines and a detailed synopsis, it’s close enough to coverage for my purposes. Deal with it.
Logline (provided by The Black List): “A New York private investigator gets sucked into a shady mayoral election.”
At the Bolton Village housing project, Detective BILLY TAGGART (mid-30s) stands over the dead body of a 16-year-old kid, MIKEY TAVAREZ, who has been shot in the head. Sirens approach. Some time later, Taggart’s murder trial has become a zoo, the courthouse steps flooded with protesters and media. Mayor NICHOLAS HOSTETLER, 50s, discusses the possible outcome with police chief COLIN FAIRBANKS. Fairbanks tells Hostetler a witness came forward with a videotape of the shooting. Hostetler wants a copy, which Fairbanks says will arrive later; meanwhile, the original is being “misplaced” in evidence control. Billy’s verdict comes back innocent, and as he descends the courtroom steps, Billy hands his badge to Mikey Tavarez’s father.
Eight years later, Billy is bathing with his attractive, long-time girlfriend, NATALIE BARROW. She’s an actress and is flirting with the idea of moving to L.A. to pursue more lucrative work. Billy’s willing to go with her, but he’s concerned about how quickly these changes are coming. He offers to fool around; Natalie tells him no. The next morning, the media is buzzing with news that the city has sold the Bolton Village project to “Solstein Donagan” for $6 billion. HENRY LUDLOW, a convicted stalker, rejoices at an early release. Others involved in the parole hearing console Billy, who testified to keep Henry in prison.
Angry, Billy drives back to his rundown office. KATY BRADSHAW, 26 and madly in love with Billy, works as his secretary. Billy’s landlord grumbles that Billy’s four months behind on rent. Billy writes a bad check and gives the landlord football tickets. After the placated landlord leaves, Billy tells Katy to stop payment on the check. He calls various old clients trying to get a payment but to no avail. Then Mayor Hostetler calls and offers Billy a job. Meanwhile, Hostetler’s election rival, ADAM VALLIANT (mid-30s), gives a rousing speech about the injustice of selling Bolton Village.
Billy and Hostetler catch up, but neither is particularly pleasant to the other—Hostetler feigns politeness, but Billy insults the mayor and reminds him he’s behind in the polls. Hostetler offers Billy $20,000 to find out who’s sleeping with Hostetler’s wife and photograph them in the act. Billy agrees. At a tech rehearsal for her play, Natalie receives a phone call and breaks, but she looks a little guilty. Billy trails JUSTINE HOSTETLER from a reading-to-sick-children photo op to a black-tie fundraiser to SoHo. This is where Katy, on the street, gets into the act. With her help, Billy manages to lift Justine’s cell phone, find out who she’s calling, and get it back to her without Justine knowing. Back at the office, Billy and Katy investigate the number. It belongs to ZACHARY ANDREWS, City Council President. Billy tells Katy it’s a good lead, but it’s not enough.
That evening, Billy and Natalie have a cutesy but suspiciously snooty conversation about fish, followed by an awkward conversation about premiere apparel. Natalie wants multiple dresses but is indecisive, irritating Billy. Billy mentions RYAN, a fellow actor who’s supposed to be arriving in town for the premiere. The conversation suddenly gets awkward, and the awkwardness increases when Billy finally mentions the parole hearing, that Henry’s out. Billy promises it’ll be different—Henry won’t come near her. Natalie’s not so sure.
The next day, Billy waits outside the mayor’s mansion for Justine. He tails her all day, until he finally ends up at a beach house on Long Island. Meanwhile, a fellow named SAM LANCASTER comes to Hostetler with grave concerns about someone figuring something out. It’s all very ambiguous, but it has to do with the Bolton Village deal—Lancaster is a contractor whose business depends on this deal going through. Billy makes Katy come down to Long Island and assist while he snaps photos of Justine and Andrews. At a hotel, Natalie meets up with the aforementioned RYAN BLAKE; they have sex. Billy hears moaning and whimpering from inside the house, but they have it “fool-proofed”—he can’t take any pictures. Billy and Katy wait it out. When Andrews gets back in the car and leaves, Billy’s confused—why is Justine still inside? Katy suggest waiting, but Billy decides it’s time to leave. Inside the house, a mysterious off-screen voice suggests to Justine that something ambiguous is “not enough to go on.”
That night, Billy and Natalie have dinner with Ryan. Billy takes an immediate shine to Ryan. Natalie feels awkward. The next day, Valliant is angry that Hostetler is handling his attacks so well. They have nothing substantial to pin on him. Andrews, working with him, says they’re working on it. The Lancasters—Sam, SAM JUNIOR, and TODD—meet with HARRIS SARGENT at Solstein Donagan. They ink a contract for Lancaster’s construction company to tear down Bolton Village. For an unknown reason, Todd looks guilty. Billy and Katy flip through their developed photos. Katy reassures Billy their evidence is solid, but Billy’s not so sure. Billy goes to a black-tie engagement to meet Hostetler and hand off the photos. He bumps into Justine and they flirt—it becomes clear she knows he was photographing her, but neither lets on. Justine slips a business card into his jacket. Billy also has an awkward run-in with Fairbanks, who seems to still like and respect Fairbanks.
When he meets with Hostetler, Billy’s suspicious enough to think there’s more involved than just an affair. Hostetler refuses to answer, just asks for the pictures. Reluctantly, Billy gives them up. Hostetler’s surprised. Afterward, Billy pulls out the card Justine gave him—it’s Harris Sargent’s. Billy gets ready for Natalie’s premiere when Katy calls with some news. Immediately, Billy rushes out the door. Andrews is dead; nobody knows a thing, but a detective named JANSEN wants to know what it has to do with Billy. So does Fairbanks, who knows this has something to do with the work Billy did for Hostetler. Meanwhile, Natalie and Ryan dance at the premiere after-party. Fairbanks tries to get Valliant—who was with Andrews—to tell him exactly what he saw happen. Valliant accuses Fairbanks of being dirty. He claims he knows everything. Billy shoves Valliant’s head into cold water repeatedly until he breaks out of his shock.
Valliant tells them Andrews was going to meet Todd Lancaster, that he was late and rushed out the door. Valliant heard the shots, knew it was Andrews. That’s it. Billy and Fairbanks dress Valliant like a uniformed officer, and Billy drives him home. Natalie and Ryan sleep together again, but Natalie decides to break it off. She can’t handle this anymore. She goes back to the apartment, where Billy apologizes for not showing up to the premiere.
The next day, Billy wakes up. He realizes this is all about Bolton Village but doesn’t know how all the pieces fit. He puts Katy on some research, then goes out to City Hall. Hostetler exploits Andrews’ death for his own political gain. Afterward, Billy demands to know whether or not Hostetler had Andrews killed. Hostetler gives Billy a cashier’s check instead of answers. Billy and Jansen reconnect, and Billy fills Jansen in on everything. They visit Harris Sargent, who tells them of their intentions to tear down Bolton Village and redevelop it as commercial property. Billy is stunned. Jansen tells Billy that if Lancaster & Sons is involved with tearing down those buildings, it will make the Lancasters rich. Billy goes back to his office, where Katy hasn’t found much. Solstein Donagan is mostly clean, but as Billy goes through a last of old city contracts, he finds several for Lancaster & Sons.
Billy seeks out information at Lancaster & Sons, but instead the shit is beaten out of him. It turns out to be Sam Junior and Todd, but Billy can’t do anything about it in his condition. He wakes up in the hospital. Hostetler and Valliant have a televised debate, where Hostetler plays the part of the wise, experienced mayor and paints Valliant as an inexperienced rube. In the audience, Fairbanks and Justine are both dumbstruck that Hostetler has turned the electoral tide in one evening. Jansen provides Henry with a tape recording of Billy laying out some “rules” for him—he’s to go take care of his grandmother and never come anywhere near Billy or Natalie. Jansen adds that if Henry is that stupid, and Jansen gets called in on Henry’s murder, he’ll murder Henry again.
At the hospital, Natalie stays with Billy. She tells him she took the week off to be with him, but Billy wants her to go. She does. Later, Katy shows up. Billy asks her if she found out who owns the Long Island beach house. Katy says Natalie told her Billy’s thinking of quitting. Billy tells Katy she should find a new job. Katy tells him the information on the beach house doesn’t matter, then leaves. That night, Todd Lancaster shows up to apologize to Billy for beating the hell out of him. He explains that he was tricked into the beating thanks to a guilt trip, but Todd knows shady things are going down and wants them to stop before his family gets in too deep. Todd hands Billy a few papers. Billy looks at them—founding articles for Lancaster & Sons, which cite Hostetler as a silent co-owner of the company.
Armed with this knowledge, Billy leaves the hospital and finds Justine. He accuses her of being a significant part of this, selfishly getting Andrews killed to save her husband so they could make more money. Fairbanks emerges, training a gun on Billy. Enraged, Billy leaves. He shows up at Natalie’s theatre. She’s surprised to see him out of the hospital. Billy tells her his phone’s dead; he needs to borrow hers. Just as he calls Katy and gets her VoiceMail, a call rings—Ryan. Natalie promises she ended it, but Billy’s livid. He simply walks away, telling her something came up and it’s not safe to go home.
As Billy makes copies of the Lancaster papers and seals them into various envelopes, Natalie returns to Ryan, and they resume their affair. Billy confronts Hostetler, giving him an ultimatum: Hostetler can resign and withdraw from the campaign and Billy will keep silent forever… Or Hostetler can try to keep going with this, and Billy will send out his envelopes. Hostetler wants to negotiate, but Billy laughs…until Hostetler shows him the videotape of Billy murdering Mikey Tavarez. Hostetler demands the original contract, gives Billy time to think it over and come to a decision.
Billy seeks out a puzzled Henry. They go to a hotel—the same hotel where Ryan and Natalie are making love—and Billy gets a room for Henry, room 1912. He ties Henry to the bed, as Henry pleads that he’ll live by Billy’s rules. Billy shoves some vodka down Henry’s throat. Half an hour later, Henry’s untied and passed out on the floor. Billy goes to a pay phone and calls Fairbanks, who’s already at the mayor’s mansion, preparing to arrest him. Billy tells Fairbanks he owes him for this; Fairbanks agrees. Cryptically, Billy tells Fairbanks, “Your shooter’s in room 1912.” He bursts into Ryan and Natalie’s hotel room, where they make love in the shower. Billy shoots Ryan dead. Natalie’s horrified and enraged. Fairbanks and Jansen storm the hotel, where they find Henry vomiting in the toilet. Seeing Henry, Jansen realizes exactly what has happened, what Billy has done.
The next morning, the news is flooded with word that Hostetler was arrested for the murder of Andrews and that successful actor Ryan Blake was murdered in his hotel room. Billy and Fairbanks share a drink, toasting Adam Valliant. In City Hall, Valliant finds the videotape of Billy murdering Mikey Tavarez. An aide questions whether or not to destroy the tape, but Valliant suggests they keep it—they may need to use Billy in the future. Valliant takes a meeting with Solstein Donagan.
Broken City wants to be film noir, but it makes the mistake of not understanding or embracing the classic noir antihero archetype. Those antiheroes became compelling characters because they had more interest in justice and righteousness than money, personal happiness, or even the law. In their world, the punishment has to fit the crime, and the crime would have to be pretty severe to respond with murder. For instance, I can’t think of a single lead character from a film noir (or any good, hardboiled fiction from the ’30s and ’40s) who would be cool with the idea of walking into a hotel room, emptying a clip on the man his girlfriend is sleeping with, and pin the murder on the terrified, pathetic lowlife who once stalked her.
In the first place, the usual antihero is a little too cool for that—doesn’t let his emotions rile him to such a degree. In the second, she’s having an affair. Does this justify murder? It might justify a break-up and kicking the dude’s ass, but anything beyond that is overkill—literally. Henry, himself, is sort of a pathetic deus ex machina character who exists only to make the ending neat-‘n’-tidy. The framed murderer could have been a random bum off the street for all the difference it makes to the story. The existence of Henry is, I guess, supposed to create the illusion that Billy isn’t such a bad guy. He may have murdered Ryan right in front of Natalie, but at least she won’t have to worry about that pesky stalker. In the same vein, what could Mikey Tavarez have possibly done that warranted getting shot in the head? We only know that, according to Billy, Mikey “fucked him, and now [he’s] fucking lying to [Billy].” The details are left to our imaginations, but considering the reasoning for shooting Ryan, I could easily imagine Mikey as an uncertified accountant who made a mistake on Billy’s discount tax return, and Billy got mad because the IRS chose to audit him.
Another fatal character flaw: a real antihero would have never, ever handed over the photos. Hell, considering the history with Hostetler, a real antihero wouldn’t have even taken the job. “I need money” is a pathetic excuse. Philip Marlowe would go broke before he’d hand over photos of a man he knew would suffer severe, undeserved consequences. Maybe he’d hand them over if he didn’t know, but that’s the problem: Billy knew. Billy knew the whole time. Billy’s reluctance to hand over the photos stemmed from an obvious awareness that harm would come to Andrews. And then, after Andrews gets killed, Billy has the gall to whine and bitch and moan throw hissy-fits to everyone involved. Film noir protagonists don’t whine. They crack wise and lean against walls with aloof, sarcastic grins that tell everyone they meet, “Hi, I’m a badass. Don’t fuck with me if you don’t want to get fucked with.”
So it’s settled: Billy is not an antihero. He’s an asshole. By the end of Broken City, what little sympathy we might have for him has evaporated. I’m all for movies about irredeemable assholes if I understand where they’re coming from, but the script tries to have it both ways: Billy’s an enigma, but he’s also a normal guy trying to work on a troubled relationship; he has a moral code, but one that isn’t strong enough to withstand substantial sums of money or jealous rage. I have no clue who this guy is or what drives him, and even before the last 20 or so pages—where he turns into a real asshole—I didn’t have much interest in getting to know him better. I can totally understand why Natalie would cheat on Ryan to flee this disaster of a relationship.
The character doesn’t work. How about the plot? It manages to be both convoluted and head-slappingly obvious at the same time, which is an impressive feat, I guess. Look, nothing infuriates me more than the people who criticize Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep film for not making any sense. It’s complicated and doesn’t spell anything out, for sure, but it makes perfect sense if you pay attention. Part of the unwillingness to spell things out is that the film, like the novel, limits its perspective to Marlowe. We find out what Marlowe finds out when he finds it out. This is a common film noir storytelling choice, especially with detective stories—the limited perspective keeps the filmmakers from tipping their hands. Broken City is nothing but tipped hands. We find out pretty much everything well in advance, but I took no joy in waiting around for Billy to catch up. It would be serviceable (but kinda dull) if Tucker eliminated every scene that doesn’t involve Billy in some way. However, if he did that, the script would be about 20 pages long. (Not because there’s so much else going on, but because Hostetler and Valliant never shut their fucking mouths.)
Like Fuckbuddies, Broken City tries way too hard and suffers for it. It doesn’t try to be funny—though some levity could have helped break up the tedium a bit—but it does try very hard to be gritty and complex and raw. It didn’t do much for me. It felt too artificial, especially when I realized I hated Billy and had nothing to focus on but the attempts at atmosphere and drama. Instead of grit and rawness, we get melodrama and kind of a stagey theatricality to the grit—everything is two or three shades over the top.
(As a minor stylistic note, I found myself irritated by the endless use of gerunds in the action. Billy doesn’t get out of the car. “Billy getting out of the car.” I guess in some ways it cuts down on the passive voice, but holy shit is it grating. The dialogue, too, has kind of a poor-man’s Mamet quality to it, which some people like but it’s not really my cup of tea. I’m not usually put off by the writing itself, but in this case, it got under my skin by about page 25.)
The Bottom Line
To make the obvious joke, Broken City is broken. Its problems aren’t insurmountable, but it seems two or three rewrites away from being worthy of any real accolades. It surprises me that this was well-liked. It could end up turning into a good movie, but I don’t have my hopes high.