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First-rate actors do second-rate work in ‘Broken City’

Russell Crowe, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Mark Wahlberg star in the New York thriller, “Broken City.”

It’s a perfect film noir title, and its story stays pretty faithful to the noir template as well: desperate men and women doing grubby things in the big, corrupt city. They want to grab power if they don’t already have it, or hang on to it at whatever the cost if it’s already theirs.

The film starts off with a dirty cop, a cop who shoots and kills an unarmed man and lies to get away with it. Seven years later, the cop is a private eye and the Mayor hires him to spy on his wife who he suspects of cheating on him.

Then things get complicated when the Mayor’s wife confronts him.

WIFE (Cathleen Hostetler, played by Zeta-Jones): If I might pry for a moment, how much are you being paid for your efforts?
BILLY (played by Wahlberg): Which efforts are those?
WIFE: The work you’re doing for the mayor. I’ll give you $50,000 to give it up.
BILLY: That’s very generous, but I have a contract with mayor.
WIFE: Break it.
BILLY: You don’t break a contact with mayor.
WIFE: Don’t I know it.
BILLY: Why don’t you just leave him?
WIFE: This is not what you think it is.
BILLY: I get paid to take pictures Mrs. Hostetler, I don’t get paid to think.
WIFE: If that woman you put down the bottle for means anything, walk away. Because if you think you believing Mr. Taggart, then you don’t know Nick Hostetler very well.

As the plot thickens, the private eye in turn confronts the mayor.

MAYOR (played by Russell Crowe): What can I do for Billy?
BILLY: I want to know why you hired me.
MAYOR: Stick with the adultry narrative. It’s sexier.
BILLY: Yeah, lies are always sexier.
MAYOR: I hired you to investigate my wife.
BILLY: To investigate her for what?
MAYOR: For not minding your own business is for what. For having a big mouth is for what. For asking too many questions is for what. Better be careful following her example, Billy. I might have to hire someone to investigate you.

All pretty standard stuff here: A corrupt mayor, a bitter, sexy wife, an unsteady political rival, and a conniving police commissioner with secrets of his own. When the private investigator starts to unravel the whole sordid affair, guess what he finds? A broken city.

There are two ways to make this kind of familiar ground worth re-treading – either a highly stylized personal approach or a script with a brilliant “reveal.” Unfortunately, “Broken City” has neither. The only shocking thing about this movie is just how tired and bland the “mystery” is, once it’s finally uncovered.

This movie has a first-rate cast doing second-rate work in a lost cause.

(The best thing you can say about Russell Crowe’s performance is that at least he doesn’t try to sing. See “Les Miserables.”)

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