A lot of what's broken about "Broken City" -- the new political thriller by Allen Hughes, who with his brother Albert directed the highly influential inner-city dramas "Menace II Society" and "Dead Presidents" before veering off into more comic book-y territory with historical thriller "From Hell" and post-apocalyptic yarn "Book of Eli" -- is encapsulated by its opening sequence. Mark Wahlberg, as a gruff New York City cop (is there any other kind?), stands over a bullet-riddled body, his gun still smoldering, while the soundtrack (by "The Social Network" co-mastermind Atticus Ross) churns with a kind of industrial grind. Hughes seems to be attempting to reconcile the two halves of his career, in this scene and in the rest of the movie, wrangling his pointed look at inner city life with flashier Hollywood slickness and the result is utterly boring mush, anonymous and ambitionless.
Following a brief sequence that shows Wahlberg's trial, which is made all the more bewildering given the fact that we never know the specifics of the shooting or who, exactly, Wahlberg is (these morsels of information are teased out for the remainder of the movie), the disgraced cop is called into the office of the mayor, played with slimy malevolence by a non-singing Russell Crowe. Crowe informs Wahlberg that he has just been given some new evidence from the police chief (Jeffrey Wright in another thankless supporting role unworthy of his talents), but that he'll bury it because he feels that Wahlberg is a "hero." Of course, should the mayor need anything from him, he won't hesitate to call.
Seven years later, and the mayor (still, damningly, non-singing) is running for reelection. In typical film noir style, Wahlberg (whose character has the noir-y name Taggart) has become a low rent private eye, taking pictures of philandering husbands and wittily bantering with his sexy assistant (Alona Tal). His hot Latina girlfriend (Natalie Martinez) is about to star in an indie movie (hilariously, someone shouts, "Next stop, Sundance!" at the film's premiere) and he's been off the booze since that fateful shooting, which has made him slightly less gruff. Taggart is summoned to the mayor's office. The mayor is calling in that favor.
The mayor suspects that his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones, better – and sexier – in next month's "Side Effects") is having an affair and wants Taggart to get evidence. Apparently a marital scandal is something that his iffy campaign, already fighting an idealistic opponent (played by a weathered Barry Pepper), just couldn't withstand. Being a man with loose morals and little money, Taggart takes the job. Since this is one of those political corruption movies where a small case uncovers a vast conspiracy, of course, it's not merely infidelity that Taggart will discover, but something much bigger.
But unfortuantely, whatever the larger scheme may be, it's not all that difficult to unravel. When Taggart discovers that the mayor's wife has been spending some special time with the mayor's chief strategist (played by the always-welcome Kyle Chandler; clear eyes, full hearts and all that), it's so obviously a misdirect that it is hard to even get involved with the red herring. That smarmy white guy played by Griffin Dunne, who plays racket ball with the mayor and who openly berates his son (James Ransone from "Treme") at black tie dinners, do you think he's involved in something fishy? With the introduction of the morally nebulous, highly contentious sale of a city-run housing project that the mayor brokered, "Broken City" strains even harder to be something like "Chinatown," but it lacks the vivacity, intelligence, or ruthlessness of that film. Instead, it just limps along, achingly devoid of any actual thrills, with a central mystery so devoid of sizzle that it barely registers. Jack Reacher would have had this thing sewn up in twenty minutes.
Most of the actors, for their part, try admirably to give depth to the clearly two-dimensional characters, but it just feels like they're constantly being sabotaged by the slack filmmaking. For instance, there's a lengthy, emotionally tortured subplot involving Wahlberg's resistance to his girlfriend's movie because it features an explicit sex scene between her and a costar. After he blows up at her at the premiere (and shortly after it's revealed that the man who Wahlberg shot was the man who raped his girlfriend's sister), insinuating she's been having an affair, she's never seen or heard from again and Wahlberg doesn't seem all that bothered by it, especially since he's on the trail for this incredibly bland conspiracy.
Hughes can't seem to find the balance between a brainy procedural and accomplished genre picture that he seems to be striving for. Is "Broken City" a glimpse behind the scenes of how the slick moving parts of a political machine can further the decline of the inner city? Or is it just a glitzy thriller where a camera swirls around the mayor's office in long, unbroken shots, bringing attention to its shiny coolness? Neither, it turns out. (Its gritty stab at authenticity is further undermined by hair-brained gaffes like Kyle Chandler buying a ticket at Grand Central Terminal for the Long Island Railroad – a line that runs out of Penn Station; and the fact that, for all its much-appreciated NYC photography, large chunks of the movie were noticeably shot in Louisiana for tax purposes.) There are filmmakers who are able to weave social commentary through the arena of big budget entertainment, without having it come across as lopsided or boring; Allen Hughes, it turns out, is not one of these filmmakers. [C-]