Broken City evokes the gallows humor of Menace II Society, the 1993 debut of twin-brother directors Allen and Albert Hughes, but it lacks a coherent plot. Allen went solo to direct this detective story, suggesting that Albert is the twin with the most talent.
Mark Wahlberg stars as Billy Taggart, a gumshoe who's short on stealth. When caught sleuthing, he raises a ruckus by pummeling the witnesses. He can't grease any palms because he's broke, and he's broke because his clients keep stiffing him. So when the mayor of New York (Russell Crowe) hires Taggart to track down his wife's (Catherine Zeta-Jones) illicit lover, it seems too good to be true. Taggart refuses to limit himself to matters of the boudoir, however. Lo and behold, there's a dead body, a mountain of corruption, and a cloud of doom looming in the distance.
Wahlberg seems a bit too grown up for his role, but the other actors shine, particularly Barry Pepper, who's tight-lipped and hollow-eyed as the mayor's wealthy, brainy foe in the upcoming election. Jeffrey Wright is subtly saucy as a cold-blooded police chief who knows a little too much but isn't afraid to throw a few barbs.
Unfortunately, good acting can't save this movie from its confusing storyline. Four or five subplots wander off into oblivion, and it's occasionally hard to tell whether Hughes is winking at clichés or merely adhering to the genre handbook. In the first five minutes, we're treated to pounding gavels, reporters swarming the courthouse steps and jolly fat cats cavorting with bottles of booze.
Hughes does accomplish a feat that seems cinematically impossible: creating a white-knuckle scene from a mayoral debate about zoning policy. You could've heard a Skittle drop in the theater during this stretch of the film. That, and a terrifyingly realistic car chase - another throwback to vintage Hughes films - are worth the price of admission.