The time has come to admit that for as much fun as he sometimes is to watch, Mark Wahlberg is an actor in name only. It doesn't matter which Mark Wahlberg character he's playing, really. They're all variations on the same blue-collar Joe who can take a punch on the way to getting to the bottom of things and will always stick up for his family while he's at it. Andy Samberg's "Say hi to your mother for me" impression of Wahlberg stuck because Wahlberg carries that strangely reassuring air about him, as if he's just a nice young man from the neighborhood who might just swing a bat against a guy's spine if he's backed into a corner. But he is always, always Mark Wahlberg.
In "Broken City," the new perfunctory political crime thriller, Wahlberg stars as an ex-cop private eye who gets caught up in some shady business with New York's ruthless mayor, played by Russell Crowe. The mayor has some dirt on the dick, and then hires the dick to get some dirt on his wife, the ornate Catherine Zeta-Jones. The mayor thinks she's cuckolding him and hires Wahlberg the week before the mayoral election to find her paramour, mumbling something about how imperative it is that the opposing camp not leak the affair. Also, the city's just getting into a big real estate deal that stinks, and the mayor plays racquetball with some rich dudes who expect him to win the election. Wahlberg, per usual, has got to get to the bottom of things, and quickly, using all of his wits and both of his facial expressions.
The dots here are not particularly hard to connect, but in the interest of not actually spoiling what comes next, let's just say there's an excellent movie to be made about the connection between Wall Street financiers, politically connected developers, a billionaire mayor and New York real estate deals that throw poor people out on their asses. Unfortunately "Broken City" is not that movie. That's not to say it's a total wash. It presents a strong undercurrent of pervasive casual corruption without pretending it's pulling the scales from our eyes. Crowe's imperialistic mayor doesn't even find it terribly interesting to be able to buy, direct and squash people. In the final act, when a car runs Wahlberg's detective off the road, he asks a cop how long it'll take to pull the footage from a public security camera that captured the wreck. The cop tells him that depends on whether he's got a powerful uncle he can call.
"Broken City" falters by building in only one real plot twist (a non-stunning one at that) and by putting an oddly bland P.I. at the center of the action. Wahlberg evinces street smarts but little in the way of the dark charm or ingenuity that has made immortals of other movie detectives over the years. Director Allen Hughes (of The Hughes Brothers fame) handed Wahlberg a character with layers but no depth, and adding depth is simply not Wahlberg's expertise. He winds up guilty of the two great sins a movie character can commit: With a few exceptions, he neither does anything nor says anything particularly entertaining. He plays a great regular Joe. But there's a reason we go see movies, and it ain't generally to watch the fellow from down the block.