There's a reason that the two-month stretch of January and February is one of two annual movie dumping grounds during the box office calendar year.  For these two months to start the year, audiences get all the movies that weren't deemed good enough for an Oscar push in November and December and aren't worth springtime resuscitation.  The other stretch is September and October, where movies that aren't bankable enough for summer blockbuster status and aren't classy enough for the November/December awards season are sent to die at the back-to-school box office.  With the release of Broken City, the second consecutive January offering from Mark Wahlberg after last year's Contraband, that January/February dumping grounds vibe is in full effect for my third consecutive movie review, following The Last Stand and Gangster Squad.

Wahlberg stars as disgraced ex-NYPD cop Billy Taggert (bearing no relation to John Ashton's Beverly Hills Cop series character), who slipped through a murder conviction with a self-defense plea at a very messy public trial where he was accused of killing instead of apprehending a known child rapist.  His actions may have drawn stark public criticism, but he gained a fan in powerful New York City mayor Nicholas Hostetler (played by Oscar winner Russell Crowe and bearing no relation to the Super Bowl XXV winning New York Giant quarterback Jeff Hostetler) who called him a hero in his eyes.  He walked, but lost his badge and livelihood.

Seven years later, Taggert makes a living as a solo private detective and outkicks his coverage to date an aspiring indie actress (End of Watch's Natalie Martinez).  His overly helpful personality of never charging people up front has him behind in his business and chasing debts, where he's helped by his plucky secretary Katy (newcomer Alona Tal).  Just when he needs a big payday, Mayor Hostetler summons Billy for a private meaning.  After hashing out old times, the mayor gets to the point.  He is calling in an old favor to enlist Billy, to the tune of $50,000, to find the person who is having an affair with his trophy wife Cathleen (fellow Oscar winner Catherine Zeta-Jones).  Hostetler is deeply entrenched in the final week of a very close re-election campaign against idealistic councilman Jack Valliant (played by Saving Private Ryan's Barry Pepper and bearing no relation to Bob Hoskins's gumshoe fromWho Framed Roger Rabbit?) and a minor media scandal about the city bankrolling to tear down some old projects to back upscale housing construction.  He needs Billy to complete this quickly and quietly.

Naturally, the deeper Billy goes, the hairier the situation (not Catherine Zeta-Jones's body) gets.  Marriages and affairs are not what they seem and the politics and business dealings come across even more tangled than those.  As the web gets thicker, the only person with leverage on both sides appears to be Chief of Police Carl Fairbanks (Wright, with, I'll say it, the whitest character name possible for an African-American actor).  You know the house of cards is going to crumble.  It just becomes a matter of how many fall and whose cards comes out on top.

It's a shame Broken City isn't better, because, on paper, it looked solid.  That plot description is a step or two above a Law and Order TV episode, right?.  Director Allen Hughes, one half of the Hughes brothers directing team behind solid and stylish efforts like The Book of Eli, From Hell, and Dead Presidents, was making his first present-day set film since his big breakout of Menace II Society from 1993.  Two-time Oscar nominee Mark Wahlberg brought his star power and savvy producing clout to top-line a cast with two Academy Award winners (Russell Crowe and Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Jeffrey Wright, one of the best character actors of his generation.  You put them in a flashy New York City setting with powerful characters and political scandal at the city's highest office and the movie should sell itself, right?  Nope.

As it turns out, Broken City is made out of an aluminum chain of recycled Hollywood cookie cutters.  Though the movie shows small flashes of their sharp cinematographic style, like the rotating Steadicam circle around Crowe and Wahlberg's proposition meeting, the Hughes brothers are better than this.  The movie is really missing their signature panache for clever movement, memorable music, and audacious violence.  Broken City is very watered down from what they are known for accomplishing in the past.  I can see why some critics would have rather seen this movie as a 1970's period piece with a repeat of their Dead Presidents soundtrack.

Mark Wahlberg plays another babyfaced, tough guy rebel/anti-hero archetype for what seems like the 317th time.  He plays it straight and tries to add a recovering alcoholic angle to his redemptive character, but he just looks uninterested compared to the emotion and fun he brings in stuff like The Fighter, The Departed, and even The Other Guys.  Projects like Broken City are supposed to show his range, not the other way around when Ted ends up being his departure from the norm.  Russell Crowe, fresh off singing quite terribly in Les Miserables, attempts to mutter and low-voice a dose of understated menace to every scene, but ends up conveying uncharismatic and obvious menace anyway.  Catherine Zeta-Jones plays a weak damsel with no distress and Barry Pepper is a glass punching bag next to Crowe in their rival scenes together.  The only actor who gets some meat to work with is Jeffrey Wright's top cop.  He gets all the twists and fun and plays them well.

About those twists, very little surprises you in Broken City.  Remember, the plot was supposed to be bigger than a Law and Order episode but comes across about as daring as sub-par Lifetime movie.  As a whole, it may keep your attention with its star power, but the movie doesn't move the tension needle on the gauge at all and not much merits even an eyebrow raise.  Nothing grips you and things falls predictably into place.  Broken City needed to attempt more suspense.  If you want a step better big New York twists, go find Richard Gere's Golden Globe-nominated performance in Arbitrage from last fall which is on DVD/Blu-ray shelves now.  For all involved (Hughes, Wahlberg, Crowe, etc.), I hope they do better the next time around.


LESSON #2: OWING FAVORS TO RIGHT OR WRONG PEOPLE--  While I'm as giving and opportunistic as the next nice guy about volunteering and stockpiling favors in the old karma bank and know exactly who to call when I need to dispose of a body someday (everyone should have that list), there's a lesson here in Broken City about being careful about what kind of people you owe and also what kind people owe you.  It becomes a measure of trust.  Can the person who owes you be trusted when you need them and, in reverse, can you trust the person who is calling in favor?  Some people are good to have around and others are not.

LESSON #3: CITY POLITICIANS ARE AS CROOKED AS THE OTHER POLITICIANS--  We movie fans love a good work of fiction like Broken City, but we all walk away from a movie like this wondering how dirty and deep are our political rabbit holes.  As a resident of the state of Illinois (with two of the last three governors in jail) and the city of Chicago (with one tough strong-arm/knee-breaking/back-scratching mayor now replacing a former tough strong-arm/knee-breaking/back-scratching mayor, who was the son of a famously tough strong-arm/knee-breaking/back-scratching mayor), I move the plot of this movie away from milquetoast Michael Bloomberg in NYC to my own backyard with little need for fantasy or editing.

LESSON #4: FLEXING AND USING DIRT VERSUS DIRT-- We all love the feeling of having secrets, but we love that frenzied euphoria even more when know or discover a secret of someone else.  We think we are smart and have leverage.  In Broken City, dirt on one person is pitted against dirt on another person.  Unlike penalty flags in the NFL, multiple infractions and penalties from both sides do not offset each other.  The dirt, guilt, and ramifications just add up.  At the same time, one man's dirt is another man's proof.  Watch out for that.