There are thrillers that cruise along on sex, violence, and action the unholy trinity and then there are thrillers of political-corporate intrigue in which the real dirty business is in the paperwork. Broken City, a dark-side-of-New York suspense mystery about a private eye (Mark Wahlberg) hired by the city's mayor (Russell Crowe) to trail the mayor's unfaithful wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones), wants to be both kinds of thrillers at once. No wonder it ends up tying itself in knots. For a while, though, the first feature to be directed solo by Allen Hughes (of the Hughes brothers) is kind of fun, as we go along with the entertainingly anachronistic idea of a sleazy-likable film-noir detective peering through window panes with his telephoto lens as he searches for sordid clues to adultery. Wahlberg's Billy Taggart has even been given an old-style Girl Friday (Alona Tal), and Crowe, so tanned and coiffed that he looks like he belongs on a copper coin, plays the mayor as a boss out of the '40s, a heartless string-puller who thinks he owns the city.
The movie takes place during the week leading up to the mayoral election, and wouldn't you know it, the mayor's wife is having some sort of liaison with the other candidate's campaign manager. I'm sorry, but that's the sort of plot twist that sets off an alarm bell in me. It says, ''Warning: overly tidy and insular scenario of corruption coming!'' Then there's a very high-profile murder, at which point the floodgates of contrivance really open. Broken City teases us with intimations of the lurid, but its true subject is greed and the ruthlessness of companies that will lie through their teeth for profit. It seems that the principal issue dividing the two candidates is where they stand on a real-estate deal the selling of Bolton Village, a gargantuan apartment complex, to a private corporation. Crowe's cynical sharpie backs the deal; his progressive opponent (Barry Pepper) thinks it will end up screwing the tenants. What I kept wondering is: Who cares? The intimations of bedroom shenanigans were a lot more fun than this pseudo-serious city-sociology scandal.
Wahlberg, who still has that youthful poker face, acts with his usual lean and mean awareness. Billy is an ex-cop and recovering alcoholic with what's supposed to be a blue-collar chip on his shoulder, and I was with him right up to the moment when he attends the premiere of an independent film starring his actress girlfriend (Natalie Martinez). He ends up going ballistic at the after-party, all because she had a hot love scene with her co-star. For 10 minutes, Billy gulps down whiskeys and turns into the Jake LaMotta of Raging Bull. But then, just a scene later, he's clean, courtly Mark Wahlberg again, making this one of the least convincing on-screen benders I've seen.
The rest of Broken City is filled out with amusing overacting. Barry Pepper, so good as Bobby Kennedy in the criminally underrated miniseries The Kennedys, here plays the liberal savior as a borderline hysteric, and Crowe, though he still rules the screen with his presence, smacks his lips too much to leave you with any real doubt about his character's intentions. As the police commissioner, Jeffrey Wright is the only actor in Broken City on speaking terms with the shrewd ambiguity of understatement. The big ''revelation'' feels like something out of an oh-so-topical Hollywood thriller from the '80s. The truth is that we're way past being outraged by these sorts of Crimes of the One Percent, not because they don't happen, but because the real version is so much more interesting. B–