Some things are simply essential: A cheeseburger needs the cheese, or it’s just a plain old burger; a pop song needs a catchy hook, or it certainly won’t be very popular; a thriller needs anticipation, suspense, unexpected events and, well, thrill.

Broken City

Rave and Quality 16
Twentieth Century Fox

But in “Broken City,” the twists — a staple of this genre — are wide and meandering jaunts, rather than the sharp, abrupt and shocking turns that set a memorable crime drama apart from the garbage bin of forgettable attempts. It’s a slow, predictable ride that never picks up, so it might be better to just not get into the car in the first place.

Mark Wahlberg (“Ted”) stars as Billy Taggart, a cop-turned-private investigator, who’s hired by Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe, “Les Miserables”), the New York City mayor currently seeking re-election, to investigate his wife, Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones, “Playing For Keeps”), who he suspects is having an affair.

As Billy tails Cathleen, he discovers her frequent companion is none other than opposing campaign manager, Paul Andrews (Kyle Chandler, “Zero Dark Thirty”). But as Taggart dives deeper into the case, he unveils more “cheating” than he initially expected, and it’s a far cry from just the bedroom.

Unfortunately, writer Brian Tucker — in his first attempt to pen a major feature film — misses the target entirely. The backbone of any enticing crime drama is a story with depth and creativity — a plot that moves at a “one step ahead” kind of pace — but here, the writing is seriously predictable, vapid and not very inventive.

The dialogue feels like it’s dialogue — like it’s a bunch of lines written on a page to be recited by actors rather than actual jargon used by people of the “real world.” It’s a manufactured microcosm that even a talented cast of seasoned professionals can’t authenticate. But crappy script aside, this promising lineup of actors, an aggregation of heavy hitters boasting a catalogue of critically acclaimed performances, fails to impress as a whole.

Wahlberg dons his usual attire as the brutish, curt, irreverent leading man who hits people really hard, but unlike the archetypal “troubled” protagonist who undergoes the maturation process to become a “good guy,” Wahlberg’s character is as flat as a pancake. It’s almost impossible to conjure an iota of sympathy for Billy because he brings all of his troubles upon himself: He loses his girlfriend (an aspiring actress) after punching out her co-star at a movie premiere, he goes to prison for shooting a delinquent in cold blood and, when he relapses after seven years of sobriety, he only has himself to blame.

Zeta-Jones’s on-screen presence is severely muted and rather nonexistent despite the integral nature of her role. She’s a powerhouse performer, who is idiotically and entirely underutilized — as is Chandler, who brings a vivid, albeit brief, portrayal of a passionate political motivator.

The saving grace is Crowe, who effortlessly embodies an arrogant, ruthless, win-at-all-costs scoundrel on a power trip, and it’s a pleasure to loathe him as he weaves a web of economic corruption. His scenes are rays of sunshine among a dim and drab storyline that would otherwise be nearly fully devoid of any brightness.

A more experienced writer (just one previous screenplay under his belt would’ve been encouraging), a less brooding, bumbling Wahlberg and a way more electric Zeta-Jones and charming Chandler might have been enough to repair this flawed film. But, while the trusty politicians of New York — and the rest of the country — will always have the chance to make improvements to society, it’s too late now to fix “Broken City.”

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