Russell Crowe does a lot of smirking (but no singing, thank you) in Broken City, a noirish thriller in which the beefy star sports a bespoke wardobe, nifty reading glasses, and the look of a man accustomed to getting his way. He is, after all, the mayor of New York, and he seems far more at ease than he does as Javert in Les Misérables.
With shades of Dashiell Hammett (corrupt pols, an in-over-his-head gumshoe, a mysterious dame, etc.), Broken City pits Crowe's Nick Hostetler against Mark Wahlberg's Billy Taggart, a fallen cop-turned-private eye hired to follow His Honor's wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The mayor says she's having an affair. He wants proof.
So down these mean streets Billy must go, looking for adulterers, but really looking for redemption. Directed by Allen Hughes (his first solo job after codirecting with his twin brother, Albert, on movies including Menace II Society, Dead Presidents, and The Book of Eli) from a screenplay by Brian Tucker, Broken City has a nice old-school vibe. Even an instrument of blackmail, an incriminating video, turns out to be recorded on a VHS tape. Quaint!
Billy operates from an office with a pebbled-glass door and a phone that's used mostly to harass deadbeat clients. He has a moony-eyed Gal Friday (Alona Tal) and a girlfriend, Natalie (Natalie Martinez), who's an indie film actress waiting for her big break.
It was in pursuit of Natalie's sister's killer that Billy compromised his NYPD career. Broken City begins with a flashback to Billy shooting a man already down on the ground - unarmed. The movie is about power and justice, and also the misuse of power, about injustice.
With a squad of able supporting players - Jeffrey Wright (as the police commissioner), Barry Pepper (a rival candidate for mayor), and Kyle Chandler (the candidate's aide) among them - Broken City rises above its B-movie pedigree. The side stories work well and show Billy as a more complicated and tormented dude, as in an encounter on the Long Island Rail Road, when Chandler's character starts chatting up the stranger behind him (it's Billy, tailing him to Montauk), or in a visit to the housing projects, where Natalie and her sister grew up and where the girls' parents live, still thankful for Billy's act of vengeance.
Wahlberg does what Wahlberg does, bringing muscular conviction to his troubled, tough-guy role. The city may be broken, but the movie star's formula is working fine.