Mark Wahlberg stars as ex-cop turned private eye Billy Taggart, whose investigative talents are not exactly of Sherlock proportions. He takes a window-peeping assignment for incumbent mayor Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe), who is suspicious of his wife, Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Hostetler, a glad-handing, phony-folksy bigwig with a dangerous side, says he suspects infidelity. Taggart can't ever quite get his telephoto lens in the right place to verify it. The photos are much like the poorly focused film, which peters out following a promising start.
It's easy to lose your way as you trip over the story's multiple red herrings. Taggart has an old revenge-killing rap hanging over his head, with residual guilt that threatens his sobriety and his relationship with his actress girlfriend. Someone conspires to use illegally concealed evidence to extort his cooperation in a shifty scheme, but does not reveal this leverage to Taggart until near the finale.
As the egocentric Hostetler, Crowe acquits himself well with a vast wardrobe of scowls and bogus smiles. Wahlberg repeats his typical macho primitivism. He's an appealing actor in the hands of the right director, but Allen Hughes can't sharpen him up. As for the mechanics of the big swindle at the heart of the story, any cub reporter with a day pass to the hall of records could have discovered it. "Broken City" is a fractured movie. (Rated R.)COLIN COVERT