With knowing, if at times pandering, nods to film noirs like The Big Sleep, Broken City offers up much in terms of atmosphere and characters, if not gripping narrative. Mark Wahlberg plays Billy Taggart, a PI who seven years prior was bounced off the force following his acquittal for the murder of a gang banger—a courtroom decision muddied by the 11th-hour appearance of a reliable witness. The mayor, Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe), isn’t too upset about the legal technicalities; he philosophizes that the dead kid would have wound up on a stretcher sooner or later. And the mayor promises Taggart that he’ll keep him in mind if something big comes along. Enter the impending mayoral election, in which Hostetler is in a dead heat with crusading councilman Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper). With a week to go, Hostetler hires Taggart to find out whom his wife Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is stepping out with, reasoning that it wouldn’t look good for his candidacy if the other side dug up the dirt first.
Or something like that. Much of Broken City’s plotline is fragmented and hazy; new characters continually pop up to the extent that you wish you had a program outlining who’s who. If you’ve watched film noir, or sprawling urban procedurals like those of Sidney Lumet, you know Billy’s in over his head; you just don’t know which party is ultimately going to bust his ass. Seemingly playing both ends against the middle is police commissioner Franklin (Jeffrey Wright), whose manipulation of Taggart makes you almost want to cry foul, like pitting your underachieving public-school kid against an Asian homeschooler in the spelling bee.
The best thing to do is just sit back and let the images and story go through you, without trying too hard to make sense of the plot’s unnecessary intricacies. Director Allen Hughes may be at sea with respect to, well, directing, but he has managed the movie to exude a vivid sense of place, and he gets knowing performances from many of his cast. OK, so Zeta-Jones does nothing more than look ridiculously beautiful and ridiculously bored, but Wright is suavely dangerous. Crowe has a tremendous time chewing up the script—and the scenery—with a New Yawk brogue so thick yet supple it could extinguish a stovetop fire. Alona Tal’s girl Friday is suitably sweet and savvy. The best thing about the flawed Broken City, however, is Wahlberg, who combines the steely physicality of somebody not averse to a good back-alley fight with the knowing sense that he’s in too deep.