Mark Wahlberg is the only person in Broken City that hasn't figured out the conspiracy -- and that includes the audience watching the film.
Wahlberg plays Billy Taggart, a brash NYC cop who guns down a gangbanger in an opening scene that suggests anything but self-defense. He's not charged, but is still forced to resign by his pragmatic police commissioner (Jeffrey Wright) and his charmingly conniving mayor, Nick Hostetler (Russell Crowe). Seven years later, Billy's working as a smutty private eye with a sassy, platonic assistant (a very engaging Alona Tai) and Hostetler gives him $50,000 to investigate the infidelity of his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones). After a murder and the discovery of a paper trail, Billy discovers a lot more ... very slowly.
Billy's method of investigation involves a lot of clandestine photographing, though it's apparently not clandestine enough, as his subjects almost always know he's there. When he doesn't get what he wants, he resorts to his two most useful qualities: His fists and his F-words.
Wahlberg isn't quite the electric dynamo of amusing vulgarity he was in The Departed, but he's not at his boring, faceless worst (à la The Happening) either. However, his constant confusion at the relatively simple case he has before him makes you wonder how he ever passed a detective's exam. Crowe is fine as the smooth-talking mayor, though his accent seems better suited to a sports talk show on WFAN, not the mayor's office.
Zeta-Jones, Wright and Barry Pepper (as Hostetler's subtly-named opponent Jack Valliant) all play their two-dimensional parts as decent as they probably can. Kyle Chandler (Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights), as Valliant's moral, high-energy chief of staff, out-acts all of them with a fraction of the screen time though, which is either an endorsement of Chandler's talents or an indictment on the rest of theirs -- probably both.
Director Allen Hughes's propensity to move the camera without any rhyme or reason quickly becomes a distraction. In the scene where the mayor gives Billy the job, the camera rotates back and forth around the two of them like a toy train whose tracks don't make a full circle. Hughes probably saw the shot in a Tarantino film and thought, "Hey, I can be stylish like that." But it's tough to be stylish when you clearly don't know why something is stylish in the first place.
The movie aspires to be a Chinatown or The Maltese Falcon for a new generation. Too bad Billy Taggart is no Jake Gittes, Wahlberg is no Humphrey Bogart, and Hughes is certainly no Roman Polanski or John Huston. The political message is obvious, the subplot involving Billy's actress girlfriend is almost pointless and even the surprisingly interesting morality of the ending offers little satisfaction. Because if you're paying attention, you'll have seen it coming. Grade: C
Follow Pete McQuaid on Twitter @sweetestpete.