- - Thursday, January 17, 2013

Styled as a film noir homage, “Broken City” is maddeningly literal in the way it pays tribute to the genre. It’s less of a throwback than an uncritical update — the fedoras give way to iPhones, but the stock characters are all here.

Mark Wahlberg stars as Billy Taggart, an ex-cop who quit the force amid scandal and public outcry after he gunned down a suspect in the vicious rape and murder of a teenage girl, in what may have been a cold-blooded execution. Seven years later, Taggart is cobbling together a living as a private eye photographing cheating spouses. He is summoned by Mayor Hostetler (Russell Crowe), a big-city boss who greases the wheels of his political machine with an unholy cocktail of charisma, corruption and whiskey. The mayor wants Taggart to trail Mrs. Hostetler (Catherine Zeta-Jones) to see if she is having an affair. When Taggart fingers a political opponent of the mayor’s as the lover in question, murder swiftly follows.

Of course, in a film noir, nothing is as it seems. Some classics of the genre make a virtue of their impenetrable webs of intrigue, malevolence and double-dealing. “Broken City” isn’t opaque; it’s just kind of dumb. The dialogue is sprinkled throughout with bits of exposition in which characters announce their occupations, relationships to one another, and personal histories in timely fashion. The conspiracy that fuels the plot — a multibillion-dollar real estate deal that may include a 50 percent cut for Mayor Hostetler — is patently absurd in its construction and execution. Perhaps the only thing more ridiculous in “Broken City” is the feat of impromptu Dumpster-diving that gives Taggart a much-needed clue to crack the case.

The housing project that is in play in the business deal plays a central part in Taggart’s life. It’s where the fatal shooting that ended his career took place. It’s also the home of Taggart’s girlfriend, a rising young actress starring in her first movie. Their relationship doesn’t do much for the story except give Taggart the opportunity to descend into a jealous rage after watching her in a provocative love scene in her movie premiere, and fall off the wagon. Did I mention that Taggart is a recovering alcoholic? There are so many moving parts here that it’s hard to keep track.

The cast, it must be said, does an exemplary job with this material. Mr. Crowe is believable as a charismatic old-school politician, who uses violence and intimidation to accomplish what he can’t get done with his roguish charm. Mr. Walhberg has made a respectable living playing working-class guys with chips on their shoulders, and he does a decent job here of imparting some nuance to a role that on paper would be a walking cliche. Jeffrey Wright breathes life into the role of a police commissioner who is pursuing his own agenda. The exception is Barry Pepper, usually a dynamic supporting player, who appears oddly lifeless as mayoral candidate Jack Valliant.

The version of New York City offered here is unrecognizable, except in the physical sense. Director Allen Hughes offers plenty of establishing shots of the skyline, but the city politics, real estate and social life hark back to a bygone era. “Broken City” hints at, but does not develop, a critique of city politics that shows how ordinary people are at the mercy of the greed and corruption of people at the top. Maybe a compelling movie could have been crafted from the outline of this story. As it stands, “Broken City” is a barely workmanlike anachronism.

★★

TITLE: “Broken City”

CREDITS: Directed by Allen Hughes; written by Brian Tucker.

RATING: R for profanity, violence, nudity and sexual situations

RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS