Allen Hughes' Broken City has the bones and perhaps even the DNA of a better, darker and more interesting film.
Its tale of marital discord and political in-fighting, as well as corruption and malfeasance, could have been constructed as one of those painfully compelling tales of a good man dealing with rotten doings in his own little world -- and the worry of having that rot rub off on the cleaner.
But director Allen Hughes (working on his own, without twin brother Albert for the first time) and writer Brian Tucker can't dig far enough to get at anything really gripping or moving here. Instead, this winds up as the same story of one man seeking redemption in a world that has little or no forgiveness.
That man is Billy Taggart, played with blunt force by Mark Wahlberg. Seven years earlier, he was dismissed from the NYPD for shooting a rapist-killer in a questionable takedown. Now he's a private eye, forced to hound his clients for payment. He's behind in paying his canny assistant Katie (Alona Tal) and living a skimpy life with his actress wife Natalie (Natalie Martinez).
Then he gets a call from New York Mayor Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe), who handled Taggart's firing and who hires him to do a job. A week before a very close election, the mayor is convinced that his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is having an affair. He wants to find out who the man is before his opponent can get a hold of and use the information.
But as Billy tracks Mrs. Mayor, he uncovers something less savory than a simple adultery: a plot of corruption and betrayal that will allow developers close to the mayor to buy a public-housing project and turn it into a cash-cow high-rise development. It also includes murder and lesser crimes.
But once you find out what the plot really is, there's not much follow-through: the obligatory car chase, a couple of fisticuffs moments and lot of emoting. But not much tasty writing. Tucker gives away the game right at the beginning; his take on the political push-pull between the mayor and his clean-cut challenger, the obviously named Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper), seems like so much boiler-plate, drawn from excessive viewings of "The West Wing."
As roguish and attractive as the mayor is supposed to be, Crowe can't do much more than reveal his shiftiness amid the bluster. Wahlberg, meanwhile, brings his B game; he's present but seldom seems engaged in what he's doing. Which is why he fades into the background when doing scenes with Crowe, Zeta-Jones or, particularly, the electrifying Jeffrey Wright (as the police commissioner).
Broken City isn't awful, just kind of pale and predictable. It calls to mind other, similarly flawed tales of personal failing and political corruption, from Night Falls on Manhattan to City Hall to 2011's The Ides of March.
It's got a big wind-up -- but not much on the ball.
Find more reviews, interviews and commentary on my website.