A disgraced former New York policeman is hired by the corrupt mayor to spy on his cheating wife in Broken City, a neo-noir directed by Albert Hughes (Menace II Society, From Hell). With a high-profile cast – Mark Wahlberg as the detective, Russell Crowe as the glad-handing mayor and Catherine Zeta-Jones as his cool, mysterious wife – things initially look promising.
For the first hour, Broken City casts an old-fashioned pulpy spell, with sleek and dark cinematography and hammily enjoyable performances. Crowe as the duplicitous populist right-wing politician, whisky glass always in one hand, seems out of a distant, but more colourful, era. The fall-guy/hero, Billy Taggart (Wahlberg), is a New York detective being handed his acquittal on a murder charge against a suspect. At a behind-doors meeting, Mayor Hostetler (Crowe) tells Taggart that he considers him a hero, and a beat later, the police commissioner (Jeffrey Wright) informs him that they know the real story, and he's off the force.
Seven years later, Taggart barely makes a living as a snoop in adultery cases, working with his snappy assistant, Katy (Alona Tal), and living with his younger actress girlfriend, Natalie (Natalie Martinez), who he met years before on a case. When Taggart gets a call from the mayor, who seems pathologically obsessed with his wife's infidelity, Taggart takes the assignment and accompanying fat cheque. And soon he seems to have the goods: The wife's lover, Paul (Kyle Chandler), is the campaign manager for Hostetler's mayoralty race rival, a preppie do-gooder named Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper).
Nothing, of course, is quite as it appears, but the complications here – crooked developers and secret pay-offs and double-crossing law-enforcers – feel too familiar to be interesting, even when supplemented with the odd chase and beating scenes. After the initial strong start, Hughes, working for the first time without his brother, Allen, runs into pacing problems and the sort of narrative digressions that are fatal to a thriller's momentum. One scene, for example, sees Taggart attending his girlfriend's indie-film debut and losing his cool during her onscreen sex scene. But apart from underscoring his rage issues and giving Wahlberg a chance for some scenery-chewing, it does nothing to advance the story.
Performances, over all, are a mixed bag; Zeta-Jones does a fair, if incongruous, impersonation of a forties vamp, while Chandler and Pepper do well with limited screen time. As usual, Wright, as a Machiavellian police commissioner, transcends so-so-material to establish himself as the most complex character in the film.