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Originally published January 17, 2013 at 12:05 AM | Page modified January 17, 2013 at 2:15 PM

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Capable cast can’t fix ‘Broken City’

A movie review of “Broken City,” Allen Hughes’ first film as a solo director. It stars Russell Crowe as the sinister mayor of New York and Mark Wahlberg as the private eye he hires to spy on his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones).

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie Review 1.5 stars

“Broken City,” with Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jeffrey Wright, Natalie Martinez. Directed by Allen Hughes, from a screenplay by Brian Tucker. 109 minutes. Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence. Several theaters.

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Round up the usual suspects. It’s time once again to pretend that we’re shocked — you hear, shocked — to discover that politicians can be corrupt and cynical.

Russell Crowe, a long way here from the California intrigues of “L.A. Confidential,” plays the mayor of New York, who’s far too obviously a crook. There are no other dimensions to the role and almost nothing interesting for Crowe to play once his character hires a private eye (Mark Wahlberg) to spy on his apparently adulterous wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones).

But did “Broken City” have to be quite so dull and humorless and artificial? Zeta-Jones delivers a couple of funny lines, and Jeffrey Wright (as a duplicitous police commissioner) makes a sinister moment or two ring true, but Brian Tucker’s script otherwise wastes a capable cast.

This is one of those rare (fortunately) movies that transform into shameless catalogs of genre clichés, so ripe for self-parody that you feel justified in talking back to the screen. An entire ridiculous subplot, built around the Wahlberg character’s girlfriend (Natalie Martinez) and her soft-porn career as an indie film star, deserves more than a talk back.

There were reasons to hope for more. “Broken City” is the first solo work of Allen Hughes, who with his twin brother, Albert, made some of the more exciting indie films of the past couple of decades.

They were in their early 20s when they co-directed the teen Watts epic “Menace II Society,” and they followed it up with the impressive Bronx period piece “Dead Presidents” and Johnny Depp’s stylish Jack the Ripper movie, “From Hell.” (Their luck ran out with their pretentious last collaboration, “The Book of Eli.”)

In a recent New York Times interview, Hughes talked about his partnership with Albert on “Menace II Society” two decades ago: “It was kids making a movie about kids.”

Apparently Hughes meant that as a disparaging comment aimed at the brothers’ lack of filmmaking experience, but it also suggests a playfulness (and a sense of perspective) that is missing from “Broken City.”

John Hartl:

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