If Michael Bloomberg had an evil twin — hoarse with power and wealth, swollen with macho entitlement — he’d probably look a lot like Russell Crowe in “Broken City.” As New York City mayor Nick Hostetler, Crowe is the best thing in Allen Hughes’s cluttered, formulaic thriller, which is to say he’s enjoyably terrible. With his perma-tan, Julius Caesar bangs, and an outer-borough yawp that lands on your ears like the Sunday Post hitting your doorstep, Hostetler is a New York monster to rank with J.J. Hunsecker in the classic “Sweet Smell of Success.” Too bad the movie’s not remotely up to that level.
Mark Wahlberg plays the lead role of Billy Taggart, a city cop who shoots and kills an unarmed rapist and is busted off the force. Cut to seven years later, and Billy is a private detective working the usual adulteries until the mayor calls him in for a favor. His wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) has been stepping out, and with Hostetler going neck-and-neck with crusading city counselor Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper) in the upcoming election, the last thing the mayor wants is to look like a cuckold. That’s not how Brian Tucker’s script puts it, but you get the drift.
There’s more, a lot more, too much more. Tucker, a first-timer, obviously loves his Bogart movies and shady film noirs, and he writes dialogue that occasionally smacks pungently against the wall (“I believe in loving the one you’re with.” “What are you, stupid or Catholic?”) but more often splats on the floor (“If he sees election day, it’ll be from the inside of a cage like a monkey!”). “Broken City” is overstuffed with characters, including an upright campaign manager (Kyle Chandler), a conniving police commissioner (Jeffrey Wright), a sleazy businessman (Griffin Dunne), and Katie (Alona Tal), Billy’s adoring gal Friday — she really is right out of the Sam Spade playbook.
Unfortunately, Wahlberg is all wrong for his role. Billy’s supposed to be a hard case waging an inner fight between his brutish and heroic sides, but little in the actor conveys raging conflict. Wahlberg’s best at playing oddly gentle tough guys, and “Broken City” is too mean — sometimes mean-spirited — to let him go there.
It’s well shot, and Atticus Ross’s score channels ’80s-movie synth soundtracks in ways that I think are supposed to be ironic. You could do worse on a slow Saturday night when there’s nothing else on cable. But as the implausibilities and conspiracies and double-crosses pile up, “Broken City” paints itself into a corner. A plot can be confusing as long as the filmmakers themselves don’t seem confused, but that’s not the case here.
Only Crowe’s mayor keeps the movie’s pulse going as he swaggers with greasy confidence through the city he rules. They should name a sandwich at the Carnegie Deli after him: The Hostetler — Australian ham in a bulky role.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.