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Broken city

After sundown the familiar, big, beautiful, soul-dirty town in Broken City looks as if it were built from shattered glass. That’s especially true from the air, where the director, Allen Hughes, likes to take a god’s-eye measure of what’s below, the camera gliding over the glittering lights and shadows as black as the abyss. This is a place so ominous that the sun never seems to shine, leaving the grey streets and people washed in an icy-blue light. One glance and it’s obvious that this is New York, though it’s a city Hughes has painted a darker shade of noir.

Broken City is the first feature film that Allen Hughes has directed without the help of his twin brother, Albert, in their two-decade filmmaking career.

The screenplay remains the weak link in Hughes’s work. But if you don’t listen to the dialogue too hard, if you tune out a bit and instead watch the screen — notice how the restless cameras prowl around the actors and how shards of bright colour pierce the pooling black night — then Broken City satisfies like the solid B-movie it is. Written by Brian Tucker, the story traces, if somewhat distractedly, the moral education of Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg), a cop who, shortly after the movie opens, shoots a man dead and is forced to turn in his badge. It’s the sort of blunt, early narrative shock, a triggering incident, as it were, that strongly suggests where the rest of the story will lead.

In Broken City, though, the question of whether Billy is a good or bad man, a decent or dirty lawman — and the equally important matter of whether the shooting was justified — hovers in the background like a half-finished thought. One reason is that Tucker thickens the plot of this, his first produced feature, with a larger-stakes corruption tale involving the mayor, Hostetler (Russell Crowe, miscast but charismatic), the mayor’s wife, Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones, classing up the joint nicely) and an assortment of courtiers and connivers, including a Machiavellian police commissioner, Fairbanks (Jeffrey Wright, bearded, bald and sly). Also stirring up trouble is a mayoral rival with wet, beseeching eyes and a cartoon name, Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper, very fine).

With his muscled body, untroubled face and sing-song Bostonese, Wahlberg was built to play regular, hard-working, light-thinking Joes who, even when they’re on the wrong side of the law, are never on the side of the damned. In Broken City, Billy is always lagging behind events and other people, running into a scene after a deadly shot has been fired, misinterpreting gestures and making missteps that only make him vulnerable.

There are not many surprises in Broken City, despite its puddling, sometimes muddling mysteries. Hughes tells this latest iteration with characteristic technical virtuosity, and while he’s overly fond of circling camera movements, the silky, gyrating choreography of the cinematography does create a sense of a spinning web that works reasonably well.