I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that the script for Broken City, by otherwise uncredited newbie Brian Tucker, had been sitting around, unproduced, for 20 years. It's that musty in too many incomprehensible ways.
Not the noirish vibe it opens with: Gritty urban crime drama never goes out of style. But the things it chooses to be gritty and cynical about are odd and outdated, as if the sorts of corruption on display here were unexpected or shocking. Meanwhile, it lets hints of potential scandals that would have been far more modern and could have been much more deliciously salacious, or even genuinely unsettling and shocking, slide past without even noticing them.
New York City mayor Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe) is expecting easy re-election in a few days when he brings in disgraced cop turned cheap PI Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) to do his usual thing: get photos of the city's First Lady (Catherine Zeta-Jones) with the lover Hostetler knows she's sneaking out to see. Of course there's much more going on than meets our eye, or Taggart's ... but what it is isn't all that interesting.
And how it plays out devolves into a muddled mess of confused motives, such as the scene in which Taggart finds himself in a situation with the police commissioner (Jeffrey Wright). Taggart previously couldn't stand to be in the same room with the guy; now he appears to be operating in tandem with him, as if the two men were partners of long-standing who shared an almost telepathic link. It made me honestly wonder if entire important scenes had been deleted.
Even the best of what's on offer suffers from a frustrating under-poweredness. Alona Tal (from TV's Supernatural) as Taggart's investigative sidekick might steal the movie with her smarts and her spunk, if only she were allowed more room to breathe. The generally underappreciated Barry Pepper as the political challenger for Hostetler's office is always a joy, except he's woefully misused here, stuffed into a thankless and ultimately pointless role.
But the most puzzling mustiness comes from the complete lack of any appreciation on the part of the screenwriter or director Allen Hughes (who apparently went uncredited on The Book of Eli, a smart move) that this story is happening in 20-teens New York. Crowe's apparent attempts to channel Rudy Giuliani might have been OK if the city here didn't also feel very '90s-ish, and very pre-9/11.
I don't recognize this New York except as a distant memory, yet this isn't a historical piece. And I barely recognize two actors — Crowe and Wahlberg — who are usually a lot more engaging than what they give us here. I'd love to see them together again in a movie that deserves them.