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MOVIE REVIEW: Despite big stars, 'Broken City' fails to deliver a good plot

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This film image released by 20th Century Fox shows Mark Wahlberg in a scene from "Broken City." (AP Photo/20th Century Fox, Barry Wetcher)

Broken City

(PG-13)

2 out of 4 stars

If a studio schedules a crime thriller starring two Oscar-winners and another nominee for a January release, that's a clear signal said studio isn't real confident they've got a winning movie to sell. "Broken City" is the kind of film that ostensibly tries to echo the heyday of the early '70s but in actuality more mirrors the shallow ebb tide of the mid-'80s.

There's a lot going on here but most of it is meaningless subterfuge employed to distract the audience from a piecemeal scattershot plot. It flies completely in the face of the thriller blueprint, perfected by Hitchcock; keep it simple and say as little as possible. "Broken City" talks too much and piles on far too much unneeded detail.

Opening in 2005 with a vaguely fuzzy death scene, the movie covers years in only a few scant minutes of screen time. After narrowly escaping a wrongful death murder charge, New York City detective Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) is nonetheless kicked off of the force by police chief Fairbanks (Jeffrey Wright) and Mayor Nick Hostetler (Russell Crowe). Although we don't know it at the time, this is the only plot point of interest in the film (and the only one that makes any sense).

Up for re-election, the bullish but paranoid Hostetler is barely ahead of silver spoon challenger Jack Valiant (Barry Pepper) and goes to Nixon-like extremes in an effort to increase his lead and put the screws to anyone he views as a threat. This includes Hostetler's wife Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a socially aware butterfly he believes is having an affair. In an olive branch bit of fence-mending, Hostetler hires Taggart (now a private eye) to tail Cathleen and identify her lover.

"Broken City" clocks in at around 100 minutes but feels twice as long because of the over-stuffed, minutia-riddled screenplay by first-time writer Brian Tucker. Able to reasonably conjure up a fair amount of crackling political content, Tucker flounders desperately with the police procedure material. Confusing attitude with content, Tucker's convoluted tale more resembles a basic late-night cable soap opera than a dangerous New York-based crime story.

No stranger to gritty urban dramas, director Allen Hughes ("Menace II Society," "Dead Presidents," "From Hell") tries to compensate for the holes in the script by upping the violence and profanity and tossing in a handful of pointless chase scenes. This is Hughes' first solo feature and the absence of his collaborating twin brother Albert is more than noticeable.

In a rare outing as an antagonist, Crowe delivers just the right mix of slippery charm, faux bluster and political wrangling but goes a tad too far with the New Yawk accent. Reportedly based in part on former mayor Rudy Giuliani, the Hostetler character comes off more as a variation on William "Boss" Tweed, the mid-19th century New York state representative whose brief stint was riddled with graft and corruption.

As he usually does, Wahlberg plays a strong silent type that has the infrequent emotional outburst and partial disrobing chores, none of which requires a lot of range. Like Brad Pitt, Wahlberg keenly recognizes his thespian limitations and rarely takes on anything too demanding. Now firmly in that phase of her career where she plays the aging beauty type, Zeta-Jones does well with her slight material, but it's also with a character dozens of other actresses her age could have pulled off with ease.

Depending on what you look for in a redemption/revenge thriller, the ending of "Broken City" will strike you as either chillingly poetic or a minor cop-out. There is sufficient closure but not the kind most audiences would have wanted or expected. (Fox)