The Mystery of Broken City: Who Killed the New York Crime Drama?

A strong cast in a knotty plot about conniving politicians can't keep this drama from splintering

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Barry Wetcher/20th Century Fox

In films about municipal corruption, all politics is marsupial: every office holder is in a plutocrat’s pocket. That brand of cynicism wafted through last week’s Gangster Squad, in which a posse of rogue-cop heroes applied a blood colonic to postwar L.A. Now the misanthropy gets sprayed, like Pepe LePew’s perfume, all over Broken City. The city is New York, more or less; Mayor Nicolas Hostetler (Russell Crowe) holds the town’s big steel balls in his hand; and the agents of reform are outmaneuvered at every turn by some very smooth malefactors.

The third crime drama in an unusually ambitious slate of Jan. films — and the third to costar an Oscar winner for Best Actor, with Crowe (Gladiator) joining Gangster Squad’s Sean Penn (Mystic RiverMilk) and The Last Stand’s Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland) — Broken City also boasts a leading man and a director with imposing early-winter credentials. Mark Wahlberg, a star in any month, headlined Contraband, the top-grossing picture of last Jan. And behind the camera is Allen Hughes, who with his twin brother Albert directed Denzel Washington in the 2010 Book of Eli, a futuristic drama about political corruption that was, by a long stretch, the best Jan. movie of the last few years.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Book of Eli)

So Broken City stokes a lot of hopes. Too bad for all of us, the makers and the watchers alike, that it’s a grimy botch.

Running for a second term, the Mayor finds himself in a tight race with Ivy League do-gooder rival Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper). But he has time to hire detective Billy Taggart (Wahlberg) to see if his wife Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones — Jeez, another Oscar winner) is having an affair with Valliant’s campaign manager, Paul Andrews (Kyle Chandler), whom Billy tracks out to an assignation with Cathleen in Montauk. Billy resigned from the N.Y.P.D. seven years ago, after killing a young man; ever since, from guilt or love, he has sworn off drinking and cared for the boy’s pretty sister Natalie (Natalie Martinez), an aspiring actress. The scene of the shooting was Bolton Village, a crime-ridden project that the Mayor has sold off to Wall Street investors. He brags the deal will bring $4 billion to the City; it may also line the pockets of the men whose pockets he’s in.

(READ: Josh Tyrangiel’s 2003 profile of Russell Crowe)

Brian Tucker’s screenplay is within genuflecting distance of Serpico, Prince of the City and other gritty-good New York films directed by Sidney Lumet. But while appreciating the sewer-level view of Gotham’s powerful, a viewer often stops to ask, for example, whether a Mayor has the authority to privatize public housing. And why, five days before a close election, Andrews would rendezvous with Cathleen at the end of a three-hour-plus train ride to Montauk. (Couldn’t they have met in Mineola? You’re there and back in about an hour.) Also why Andrews’ candidate would bear a cartoon-hero name as instantly suspicious as, say, Lance Armstrong? And why, if Valliant were really running for Mayor and not for Star, he wouldn’t get a haircut, since in his current luxurious coiff he looks like the posh villain on a soap opera. The only mystery that’s easily resolved is why the movie gives the New York Post about a quillion plugs: Rupert Murdoch, whose 20th Century Fox distributes Broken City, also owns the Post.

(READ: TIME’s tribute to the films of Sidney Lumet)

The plot incongruities are the least of Broken City’s problems. What might have been sharp on paper plays flat on screen. It’s as if the film’s editor had been given two versions of every scene, one sizzling and the other sloppy, and mistakenly chose all of the bad takes. The mandatory mid-movie car chase and fist fight — Tom Cruise felt obliged to include one or more of each in Jack Reacher, yet another recent wallow in cops-and-pols corruption — are staged inexpertly. In a movie drowning in lost opportunities, a few heads bob above the surface. As the police chief, Jeffrey Wright, who’s almost always too good for the movies he’s in and the roles he plays, lets intelligence peek through the veil of his character’s motivations. Israeli actress Alona Tal, as Billy’s sassy assistant, lays on the working-girl mannerisms like a trowel but lends her moments a desperately needed vitality.

(READ: Corliss’ review of Jack Reacher)

Billy, for all his sleuthing, spends most of this picture as the pawn of the powerful, the way Jack Nicholson‘s Jake Gittes did in Chinatown, the golden template for urban-corruption films. Still, Wahlberg should dominate Broken City. The Boston native has done well playing sensitive urban bruiser types — think a lumpen Matt Damon — and here he’s the producer and star, in a part that suits him. Yet in a perplexing combustion of anti-chemistry, nothing happens. Could it be that Allen Hughes’ brother Albert, with whom he directed all his previous features, was the brains of the pair? Wahlberg might have gone instead to James Gray, whose Brooklyn-set crimes dramas, The Yards and We Own the Night (both with Wahlberg) have a more pungent sense of the City’s grand venality. Then again, searching for reasons for a movie misfire is a fruitless endeavor. When any film works, it’s a miracle; when it doesn’t, it’s this.

(READ: Mary Pols on Mark Wahlberg in Contraband)

One last question: Why was this Noo Yawkiest of movies shot mostly in New Orleans? These days, it seems, every R-rated melodrama, no matter what the putative setting, is made in Louisiana: Django Unchained, Looper, 21 Jump Street, Killer Joe, Killing Them Softly and The Paperboy, plus Wahlberg’s own Contraband, both of The Expendableses and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, with more to come (Bullet to the Head, Sin City 2). Is it the lure of Creole cooking or the fabulous tax incentives offered by the state? Some investigative screenwriter should look into this. He might find, if only in his imagination, the bodies of film commissioners from rival states at the bottom of a bayou. And that piece of fiction, properly filmed, would make a more savory thriller than this spindled Broken City.