It's a filthy place, this Broken City. Even the people called "good guys" have their dark sides, their dirty secrets and tragic flaws.
And the "bad guys?" They're all over the New York papers, all over cable news — a mayor who plays hardball, a guy running against him who's not above crawling in the mud, a police commissioner too quick to make ethical compromises.
Broken City begins with a cop, Billy Taggart, ably played by Mark Wahlberg, on trial for a shooting that might not be as cut-and-dried as he maintains. The mayor (Russell Crowe) slaps him on the back, and says, "I like having my picture taken with heroes." But he and the police chief (Jeffrey Wright) end Billy's career, no matter what the judge says.
Cut to seven years later. Billy is a private detective — skulking in alleys, photographing cheating spouses. He has a hot actress wife (Natalie Martinez), and his work has made him the jealous type. He has a lot of bills and a bad temper.
At least he's on the wagon.
That's the moment his old pal, the mayor, calls. Find out who's sleeping with my wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones), he says. Do it before Election Day, next week. The can-do mayor is in a two-fisted race with a city councilman (Barry Pepper). The last thing he needs is for word to get out that his wife is cuckolding him.
But once Billy has done his job and gotten the incriminating photos, things turn even dicier. The adulterer turns up dead, and Billy wonders whether he's been set up. His life unravels even as he and his perky assistant (Alona Tal) tease out the layers of deceit surrounding this case.
Director Allen Hughes (The Book of Eli) hides the secrets well and stages a good fight and chase. But what's most entertaining about Brian Tucker's script is its lived-in feel. The ex-cop is all rough edges, intolerant at times, ill-tempered.
Politicians treat slander with the cavalier disregard of those used to an "any means necessary" style of campaigning.
Working-class cops and politicians have homophobic streaks. Wright's police chief-turned-police commissioner has a simmering resentment that feels righteous but unsavory. Crowe plays the mayor's working-class background as a barely hidden resentment, making him menacing even when he's glad-handing supporters.
Zeta-Jones has a decent part to play as a woman challenging the private eye on what he thinks he knows.
There's a lot of background to pack into every character, and Tucker sets them up as virtuous, pure of motive, only to pull the rug from under them.
But Broken City doesn't have a compelling narrative to pull it along. Wahlberg, playing well within his comfort zone, dials back the fearsome, aiming for funny some of the time. It's a hallmark of this slightly-better-than-average thriller that it is missing some of the requisite thrills — and that Wahlberg blows his best one-liner.
This mayor is "dangerous," he's warned. Naah, Billy flatly replies: "He only knows people that kill people." Emphasize knows, and that line sings.
3 stars out of 5
R for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence. 20th Century Fox. 1:49. Fayette Mall, Hamburg, Movie Tavern, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester, Woodhill.