Dir: Allen Hughes. US. 2012. 109mins

Broken City

In his first directorial effort without his twin brother, Allen Hughes roots down into urban vice and sullied power corridors with Broken City, a muscular but middling thriller of sprawling political corruption whose reach exceeds its grasp. Starring Mark Wahlberg as a crusading, recovering alcoholic ex-cop, the movie is gritty but narratively unconvincing in wide swatches, succeeding in tone and atmosphere more than the specifics of its conspiratorial plotting.

Crowe convincingly embodies a tough, populist hatchet man who’s internalised and justified his expectations of personal gain as somehow part and parcel of a greater good.

Wahlberg’s R-rated thriller Contraband rang up $66 million Stateside and another $30 million internationally in the same January frame last year, but was a much more streamlined and action-oriented offering. With more substantive awards season adult fare still in theaters, it seems unlikely that BrokenCity’s political intrigue will make deep inroads with an older demographic. Meanwhile, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return to the big screen, The Last Stand, offers up more straightforward, bombastic, squib-happy action.

Billy Taggart (Wahlberg) used to be a New York homicide detective, but the fallout over a controversial fatal shooting nudged him out of the force. Seven years later, the incumbent mayor who apologetically presided over his ouster, Nicolas Hostetler (Russell Crowe), summons Billy, now a private eye, to his office. Hostetler suspects his wife, Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones), of having an affair, and he offers Billy $50,000 to take some photos and find out who it is, ostensibly in order to help keep the information out of the press and fend off his upstart challenger in the looming election — a city councilman with a name, Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper), to match his intrepid, anti-graft image.

Rather shockingly, Billy’s surveillance confirms a liaison between Cathleen and Valliant’s campaign manager, Paul Andrews (Kyle Chandler). That turns out, however, to be only the first level of intrigue in a sprawl of infidelity, mess and lies also connected to police commissioner Carl Fairbanks (Jeffrey Wright) and a multibillion-dollar real estate deal over a set of housing projects to which Billy himself has a dark connection.

Brian Tucker’s script rather needlessly condenses all its activity into the span of just several days, and the film thus represents a failure of outsized ambition as much as execution. Piecemeal, certain sequences pop, as with Hostetler and Billy’s meetings, a televised debate of pointed speechifying, and scenes with Billy’s weary assistant (an engaging Alona Tal). And the movie flirts with a psychologically dark subplot, in the form of the shared tragedy that tethers Billy to his actress girlfriend, Natalie (nicely portrayed by Natalie Martinez).

But Broken City lacks the layered attention to detail of something like Ides of March, another tale of awakened conscience against a backdrop of political dishonesty and cover-up. Differently rendered, the movie could have tapped into broader disgust at moneyed elites, or pivoted into a surprisingly piercing character study of a flawed man trying to find his moral center. As is, the movie bites off more than it can reasonably chew, throws in a couple social issue red herrings that it gives short shrift — the plotting overall seems like a sort of political scandal gumbo — and then wraps up in silly, truncated fashion to boot.

A lot of nighttime settings help give Broken City a bruised, downhearted energy, but cinematographer Ben Seresin also crisply delineates class divisions with smart lighting and framing choices. Hughes’ sustenance of mood is further abetted by a slick, bass-and-percussion-heavy score, from Atticus Ross, Claudia Sarne and Leopold Ross, that gives off an anxious, slightly menacing vibe.

While Tom Cruise took some heat for his casting in the new Jack Reacher, his characterisation remains more of an authentically dark anti-hero than Billy, whose compromised backstory rarely feels truly integrated into Wahlberg’s brooding turn, which is a thing of mannered, boilerplate intensity and regret. This is an auto-pilot performance, and nothing viewers haven’t seen from the actor before.

Fresh off a critical lambasting for his singing in Les Misérables, though, Crowe convincingly embodies a tough, populist hatchet man who’s internalised and justified his expectations of personal gain as somehow part and parcel of a greater good. His cultured shadiness is beguiling to watch. The other actors, meanwhile, have fun with their largely steely dialogue and deliver functional turns, with Tal making a notable impression as the sardonic Katy.

Production companies: Regency Enterprises, Emmett/Furla Films, Black Bear Pictures, Closest to the Hole Productions, Leverage Communications, Allen Hughes Productions, Envision Entertainment, 1984 Private Defense Contractors,

Domestic distribution: 20th Century Fox

Producers: Randall Emmett, Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson, Arnon Milchan, Teddy Schwarzman, Allen Hughes, Remington Chase

Executive producers: George Furla, Stepan Martirosyan, William S. Beasley, Jeff Rice, Scott Lambert, Brandt Anderson, Brian Tucker, Daniel Wagner, Fredrik Malmberg, Adi Shankar, Spencer Silna, Mr. Mudd

Co-producers: Brandon Grimes, Ben Stillman

Screenplay: Brian Tucker

Cinematography: Ben Seresin

Editor: Cindy Mollo

Production designer: Tom Duffield

Music: Atticus Ross, Claudia Sarne and Leopold Ross

Website: www.BrokenCityMovie.com

Main cast: Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Barry Pepper, Kyle Chandler, Natalie Martinez, Jeffrey Wright, Justin Chambers, James Ransone, Michael Beach, Alona Tal, Griffin Dunne