Wright walks in, and walks out with 'Broken City'

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Jeffrey Wright

Jeffrey Wright (center) stars in "Broken City" along with Russell Crowe and Mark Wahlberg. (January 17, 2013)

Mark Wahlberg stars in "Broken City," opening today, but Jeffrey Wright commits larceny and quietly steals the movie.

It's not the first time. Now 47, Wright, one of the great pleasures of American screen acting at the moment, has played his share of legends (Martin Luther King Jr., Muddy Waters) along with an array of cagey fictional authority figures.

In "Broken City," it's one of the latter. His role, that of a New York City police commissioner who can go toe-to-toe and glare-to-glower with the mayor (Russell Crowe), offers Wright an opportunity to "pull back a little," he told me the other day on the phone.

"My character's mysterious quality, his stealthiness, is important to him as an operator, an observer and, above all, a survivor," he said "It speaks to the nature of his power. Power doesn't scream, because it doesn't have to. That's what I was going for, anyway."

The role in "Broken City" wasn't ethnically specified, but in Wright's eyes "having a black police commissioner, given the big reveal he has toward the end of the film, becomes somewhat subversive for audiences viewing a mainstream movie. This also happens to be a mainstream Hollywood movie written and directed by African-Americans."

The director is Allen Hughes; the fledgling screenwriter, Brian Tucker, hails from Chicago. "Unfortunately, that's a rare dynamic in contemporary American cinema," Wright said.

Doing press this week for "Broken City" in New York, not far from his home in Brooklyn (he has two children with his wife, actress Carmen Ejogo), Wright told me he's been interviewed by some entertainment press junketeers whose perception of films such as "Django Unchained" and "The Help" as "black films" gave the actor amused pause.

"I don't quite know what that means," he said. "If 'Django' is a black film, then what is 'Broken City,' written and directed by African-Americans?"

For much of 2012, Wright spent his work days and nights in Hawaii, filming the second "Hunger Games" installment, "Catching Fire," in the role of Beetee.

"Broken City" was a quicker job, a few days on location in New York, then three weeks mostly shooting interiors in New Orleans.

His scenes, particularly those with Crowe, tower above the rest of the picture. But quietly. It's getting so Wright can simply walk through a door in his first scene in a movie, and the audience collectively grins, knowing it's in extremely good hands for however many minutes this particular actor will be running the show.

mjphillips@tribune.com

Twitter @phillipstribune

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