'Broken City' review: True grit, little wit

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Mark Wahlberg in a scene from

Mark Wahlberg in a scene from "Broken City." Photo Credit: AP

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The setting of "Broken City" is clearly New York, but the date seems a little fuzzy. Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg), a disgraced cop who shot an unarmed black man, exists in the present, while Mayor Hostetler (Russell Crowe) is a dirty dealer from the Boss Tweed years. Other characters include a loyal secretary, a greedy businessman and several downtrodden minorities, but they've all been around forever.

That mix of old-fashioned noir and modern-day political thriller is one of the charms of "Broken City," directed by Allen Hughes (without his brother Albert; their last film was "The Book of Eli"). Its script, by Brian Tucker, harks back to a time when a powerful man like Hostetler would hire a schmo like Taggart to tail his beautiful wife, Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones). No webcams or GPS for Taggart -- he's a shoe-leather guy with a camera, and he carries his photos not on a hard-drive but in a manila envelope.

Mike Hammer would have relished the muck that Taggart uncovers, although Sam Spade might have done so with more finesse. Taggart learns too late that his dirty work is somehow connected to Hostetler's high-polling mayoral contender, Jack Valliant (a very good Barry Pepper). By then, a man has been murdered and Taggart may be implicated.

"Broken City" has some crackling moments, mostly involving Wahlberg and Crowe. The Bostonian and the Australian are convincing as street-smart New Yorkers, and Jeffrey Wright adds to the grit as a shrewd police commissioner playing both sides. The problem is that Hughes wants to wring his hands over the material instead of just having fun with it. "Broken City" wants to get heavy about politics and corruption, but all it's really saying is: 'Twas ever thus.

PLOT A former New York City cop does some dirty work for the mayor and discovers more than he bargained for. RATING R (violence, language)

CAST Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe, Catherine Zeta-Jones

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PLAYING AT Area theaters

BOTTOM LINE This coulda-been classic noir features crackling work from Wahlberg and Crowe, but the over-serious tone eventually takes the fun out of things.

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