It should come as no surprise that every character in a movie called "Broken City" is either rotten to the core, or a liar, or a schemer, or the bearer of seriously damaging secrets.
What is surprising — and frustrating, really — is that these characters never feel like real people, despite a series of twists that should reveal hidden, unexpected facets of their personalities and despite being played by big-name stars including Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe and Catherine Zeta-Jones. They're all still conniving, only with varying alliances and targets.
At the center of these dizzying double crosses is Wahlberg as Billy Taggart, a former New York police detective who got kicked off the force after a questionable shooting. Seven years later, Billy is barely getting by as a private eye in Brooklyn. He is, however, sober these days and enjoying life with his gorgeous actress-girlfriend (Natalie Martinez) who's just starred in her first film. (Clips of the movie, which we see at the premiere, have the glossy, stilted look of a commercial for erectile dysfunction medication, just one of many elements of director Allen Hughes' film that feel distractingly unconvincing.)
Then one day, New York City Mayor Nicholas Hostetler (Crowe), who'd always been on Billy's side, hires Billy to investigate whether his wife (Zeta-Jones) is having an affair. Hostetler is up for re-election in a week and doesn't want to lose to his young, well-financed challenger, Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper), over scandalous revelations that he's being cuckolded.
But Billy's digging, with the help of his wisecracking assistant (Alona Tal, who shares some amusing banter with Wahlberg), leads to layers upon layers of discoveries that indicate that the mayor is setting him up. These involve Valliant, Valliant's campaign manager (Kyle Chandler), the police commissioner (Jeffrey Wright) and some wealthy, well-connected land developers. Everything is simultaneously too complicated and overly spelled-out in Brian Tucker's script, and none of it is terribly intriguing.
Hughes, best known as one-half of the filmmaking Hughes Brothers ("Menace II Society," ''The Book of Eli"), has come up with a forgettable piece of pulp with some uncomfortable injections of humor and a weird homophobic streak.
For a supposedly great detective, Wahlberg's character always seems sort of startled and one step behind. When Billy finally does fall off the wagon — which is no big shocker, given how much he talks about his sobriety — neither the drinking nor the recovery feels authentic. Crowe is singularly sleazy behind his inconsistent New York accent. And Zeta-Jones, despite being confident and well-coifed at all times, feels underused in a poorly developed (but theoretically pivotal) supporting part.
Everyone involved here has made and will make vastly better films. Time to deposit that paycheck and move on.
"Broken City," a 20th Century Fox release, is rated R for pervasive language, some violence and sexual content. Running time: 108 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definition for R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.