Nothing much changes in the asphalt jungle, that B-movie precinct of rancid lies and larcenous dreams, where thugs and politicians collude in the night, shady ladies lick their lips over endless cocktails, and the average joe has no idea what's really going on. You remember the terrain. Allen Hughes' Broken City welcomes you back.
The time is now, and the city, as so often in the past, is New York. The mayor, a glad-handing snake named Hostetler (Russell Crowe), is campaigning for reelection, and he'll do anything to crush his opponent, a young reformer named Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper). Making victory more iffy than usual, however, is a festering real-estate scandal in which Hostetler seems deeply complicit. And then there's his wife, a looker named Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who he knows has been cheating on him.
Determined to identify Cathleen's lover, Hostetler calls in a disgraced ex-cop named Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg). Seven years earlier, Taggart was bounced off the force after shooting a young miscreant under questionable circumstances. Since then he's been getting by as a private investigator, stalking wayward spouses for a divorce-minded clientele. Hostetler tells Taggart he'll pay $50,000 for his services along this line. It's a curiously large sum of money, but Taggart, in financial arrears, is uninclined to question the deal.
The movie's central attractions, apart from its tricky neo-noir plot, are the actors. Crowe, outfitted with a resonant Queens bray and a dubious tan that even John Boehner might question, is the essence of double-dealing sleaze. Zeta-Jones puts up a creamy front as the wily femme with a mysterious agenda. And Wahlberg's trademark blue-collar soul is a good fit for the role of Taggart, the basically good guy with no clue what he's getting into. Also solid are Jeffrey Wright as a devious police commissioner and Kyle Chandler as a campaign manager with a fateful secret of his own. And Alona Tal is a lively surprise as Taggart's wisecracking assistant, Katy, a girl who can pick a pocket or dun a deadbeat client with equal facility.
The dialogue, by first-time screenwriter Brian Tucker, has a nice vintage tang. (Digging up bogus dirt on his electoral opponent, Hostetler says, "It won't stick, but it'll smudge.") And making sense of the story—who's out for what, and why—is a lot of fun, at least in the beginning. But director Hughes, who has usually worked with his brother Albert on movies like From Hell and The Book of Eli, seems to lose his grip as the plot skulks along: sooner than you might like there's a squealing car chase of a very familiar sort, and suddenly we're in action land. The story doesn't entirely add up, either. Taggart is a reformed drunk, and when he falls off the wagon one night we see him erupting in boozy rage at a party; but as he continues knocking back scotch in later scenes, it no longer has any effect on him at all. In addition, the big real-estate scam at the center of things could never work out as plotted.
Broken City isn't the meaty classic of urban duplicity that it might have been (see L.A. Confidential, Crowe's big breakthrough). But it has a good skeezy kick, and its pleasures, however minor, can't be entirely written off.
Mama is a very stylish ghost story with more on its mind than the usual slash-and-bleed horror flick. It seeks to creep you out, and it largely succeeds. The movie is an expansion of a 2008 short by Spanish director Andrés Muschietti, who wrote that earlier film with his sister and producer, Barbara. That project came to the attention of fantasy specialist Guillermo del Toro, who signed on to executive-produce this bigger-budget elaboration (with TV vet Neil Cross joining the Muschiettis in the writing credits).
Del Toro's influence here is only glancingly apparent (there's a fleeting echo of Pan's Labyrinth). According to him, Muschietti, directing his first feature, was the central creative force. The movie is flawed by some stock characters and by the overbearing fright music that telegraphs its every shock, but it seems likely to launch Muschietti as a master of eerie atmosphere.
The story opens with a man named Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, of Game of Thrones), newly ruined by a financial catastrophe, kidnapping his two daughters from his estranged wife and driving off with them. They wind up at an abandoned cabin deep in the snowy woods, where Jeffrey, in a fit of despair, undertakes to end all of their lives. He gets as far as raising a pistol to one girl's head when a huge dark figure looms up behind him, frustrating his larger plan but enabling his own demise. With dad gone, but the hideous creature still in residence, the girls pass the next five years in the cabin, living on berries and descending into a feral state. When a pair of woodsman finally stumble upon them, a call goes out to the late Jeffrey's brother, Luke (Coster-Waldau again). Luke is a struggling artist, and while his girlfriend, a punk-rock bass player named Annabel (Jessica Chastain), has no apparent maternal inclinations, he determines to take the two little girls, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse), into his care.
But the malevolent specter with whom the girls have bonded over their years of isolation in the cabin isn't about to let them go. They call this ghastly wraith Mama, and when Luke and Annabel move with the kids into a big suburban house provided by a sketchy psychiatrist (Daniel Kash) who wants to study the siblings, Mama, unbeknown to anyone else, moves in along with them.
Terrible things soon begin to happen, in domestic settings rich in gloom and foreboding. There are sudden flocks of moths and oozing holes in the walls. And of course Mama (played by a digitally assisted, seven-foot-plus Spanish actor named Javier Botet) does a lot more rising up, much of it predictable, but still startlingly effective. It's too bad the scheming shrink—who traces the source of the evil back to a Dickensian mental asylum—is something of an expository cliché. And another character—an interloping aunt who wants to take the girls away from Luke and Annabel—might have been lopped out of the picture with little narrative loss.
But Coster-Waldau is a rock of compassion—what traumatized tyke wouldn't want to be taken under his sizeable wing? And Chastain, in rocker-girl tattoos and kohl-rimmed eyes, convincingly transitions from a young woman who has no interest in becoming the girls' mother to a staunch protector determined to prevent Mama from doing so either. Some of the scenes that Muschietti has worked up have a dreamlike beauty (especially at the end). And it helps a lot that Canadian actresses Charpentier and Nélisse are skillful beyond their years in blending standard adorability with a really frightening animal menace. They're sometimes the most unsettling element in this agreeably shivery film.