In "Broken City," a Manhattan-set drama likely to appeal to those who enjoyed the more elegantly plotted machinations of "Arbitrage," the scenes between Russell Crowe as a powerful New York City mayor and Jeffrey Wright as the equally powerful police commissioner offer a special kind of satisfaction.
It's a war of the sinister murmurs. Throughout director Allen Hughes' film, taken from a script by Brian Tucker, Crowe keeps his voice down to a conversational growl as his character wages a re-election campaign, driven by a billion-dollar real estate deal whose details remain cloaked in film noir-level shadows.
Then Crowe meets his match, and his most wily nemesis: A little while into "Broken City," Wright enters the story (the bad blood between the characters goes way back), and this inspired actor, the actor with the most insinuating voice in contemporary American movies, actually out-growls Crowe, out-murmurs the master murmurer.
Mark Wahlberg is the star of the film, and he does pretty well too. A disgraced former cop, his character, Billy, lives with an actress (Natalie Martinez), trades banter with his Gal Friday (Alona Tal) while making a living as a private detective, hiding behind bushes with his camera. Then the mayor hires him to tail his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones), whom the mayor suspects of having an affair. Evidence gathered by Billy points to the campaign manager (Kyle Chandler) of the mayor's rival candidate (Barry Pepper) as the guilty party.
If that were true, "Broken City" would be a 45-minute film, which it isn't. For an hour or so, aided by the autumnal glow of Ben Seresin's cinematography, director Hughes maintains a firm handle on the story's turnabouts. Then the script goes a little nuts with coincidence and improbability, and Billy turns into an audience surrogate, forced to repeat variations on the line "Will someone tell me what's going on here?"
It's frustrating, because the cast is so natty and ready for action. Screenwriter Tucker writes some nice, tough, profane dialogue. Right at the end (no spoilers here, don't panic, just calm down) Wright's commissioner slides a final insult in the direction of his longtime political enemy, and the audience loves it. If only the line, and Wright's delivery of it, didn't come at the tail end of so much knotty confusion and so many awkward expositional back flips! There's more to screenwriting than the zingers, as Tucker no doubt found out writing "Broken City."
Luckily, there's also more to a film than what's on the page. There is, for example, the fun of seeing Crowe and Wright have at each other without raising their voices above a threatening purr.
'Broken City' -- 2 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence)
Running time: 1:49