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BROKEN CITY

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A thrill-free, strangely sluggish political potboiler, “Broken City” suggests that it perhaps wasn’t wise for Allen Hughes to go on his own after co-directing stints with his brother Albert. The one point in its favor is that Russell Crowe at least doesn’t try to sing.

Crowe does, however, rouse himself from the lethargy he brought to Inspector Javert to play Nick Hostetler, the back-slapping, volatile mayor of New York. In a close election campaign against appropriately-named reformist councilman Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper), he hires disgraced cop, now cash-pressed PI Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg), to trail his lovely wife Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones), whom he believes is having an affair.

One might wish that this set-up would lead to something mysteriously sinister in the vein of Hitchcock’s ’Vertigo.” Unfortunately, Brian Tucker’s script goes off in a far more conventional, much less interesting direction. The model is old-fashioned film noir, but it’s a botched job involving secrets on both sides of the political divide—and in Taggart’s past, too. It wouldn’t be fair to reveal too many of the details, however far-fetched they might be, but it’s symptomatic of the screenplay’s poverty of invention that the MacGuffin is a contract about a real estate transaction that our hero happens upon after rummaging about in a box of trash for about five seconds.

“Broken City” has action set-pieces, of course—a fight between Taggart and a ruthless thug, a car chase. But they’re curiously unexciting, largely because of poor staging (attributable to Hughes and cinematographer Ben Seresin) and ineffectual editing (Cindy Mollo). And it’s weighed down by one subplot concerning Taggart’s love life with aspiring actress Natalie Barrow (Natalie Martinez), whose debut in a terrible-looking indie movie wastes far too much screen time, and another about hard-nosed police commissioner Carl Fairbanks (Jeffrey Wright), who’s engaged in machinations of his own.

Wahlberg muddles through the movie with a smidgen of charm but not much conviction, looking understandably bored during the numerous stakeout sequences, and in the scenes he shares with Crowe, he simply fades into the background and allows Hizzoner to chew up the scenery. (Taggart’s supposed to be a recovering alcoholic, but the plot turn when he falls off the wagon and belts down what seems to be a fifth of whiskey without seeming at all the worse for wear comes off as rather unconvincing as Wahlberg plays it.) Zeta-Jones, meanwhile, is more model than actress this time around, and it looks as if most of her dialogue was dubbed in post-production. With the best will in the world, it’s hard to imagine that the sallow-faced Pepper could be taken seriously as a populist (and popular) mayoral candidate, even if Tucker puts into his mouth lines that sound as though they were lifted from speeches by President Obama (and really aren’t appropriate for a local, rather than national race anyway).

Among others caught up in the byzantine but pedestrian plot, with his bald pate and stern manner Wright reminds one of Megamind or Ming the Merciless, and Kyle Chandler is all vacuous integrity as Valliant’s campaign manager. As a business crony of Hostetler, Griffin Dunne looks more than ever like Harry Dean Stanton. Alona Tal, however, provides a few engaging moments as Taggart’s feisty secretary—the sort of gal one might have found working in Sam Spade’s outer office.

A small phalanx of producers—including Hughes and Wahlberg—are credited on “Broken City,” but they haven’t been very successful in providing the picture with a production (designed by Tom Duffield, with art direction by Christina Eunji Kim) that’s anything more than mediocre. Certainly the New York locations deserve better than this.

A surprisingly large number of movies have been “Broken,” title-wise, and some of them have actually been pretty good. Unfortunately, this isn’t one of them.

THE LAST STAND

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One of the more curious trends in today’s studio system—especially, it seems, for Lionsgate—is bringing back action-movie stars of the past for a return engagement. “The Expendables” featured not just Sylvester Stallone but a slew of other of his sort, and now his old rival Ah-nuld takes to the screen once more after his stint as California governor. To mangle the old cliché, politics’ loss is not cinema’s gain.

That’s so even though “The Last Stand” represents the English-language debut of cult Korean director Kim Jee-woon. Kim gives the material his best shot, but he’s hobbled by a script by Andrew Knauer that’s remarkably silly, even for this genre, and a cast that, by and large, is a pretty weak bunch despite Schwarzenegger’s still-impressive physique.

The linchpin of the plot is the escape of Mexican drug kingpin Gabriel Cortez (snarling, slick Eduardo Noriega) from federal custody under the very eyes of bullheaded agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker, going through the motions). The elaborate stratagem he uses to get away is ludicrous enough, but it’s positively credible beside the one Cortez hatches to get across the border. He steals an amazingly souped-up Corvette and intends to drive it to Mexico by himself, with only a federal hostage for company. And to provide a route, he sends a corps of well-equipped thugs headed by brutal Burrell (nasty Peter Stormare) to build a private bridge for him pronto. (Frankly all the intricate planning seems unnecessary since the feds are all depicted as not just bullheaded but boneheaded, and given their ineptitude Cortez probably could have sauntered out of jail and across the border at his leisure.)

Unfortunately for him—but happily for the moviemakers—that will take Cortez straight through Sommerton, a small Arizona burg presided over by Ray Owens (Schwarzenegger), a former LA cop now seeking peaceful time as sheriff. When Ray finds his Mayberry-style oasis threatened, he determines to fight the culprits tooth and nail—or, more properly, bullet and fist.

His own staff doesn’t make for a terribly impressive resistance force. He has three deputies—by-the-book Sarah Torrance (Jaime Alexander, stiff), goofy Mike Figuerola (Luis Guzman, doing his familiar shtick), and callow Jerry (Zach Gilford, rather touchingly naïve). But he adds two others—ex-Marine Frank Martinez (handsome but bland Rodrigo Santoro), who’s come back from the war a troublemaker and is currently in the clink (as well as being a chum of Jerry’s and obvious romantic interest for Sarah) and Lewis Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville, making lots of funny faces and doing a good deal of his trademark dumb slapstick).

One of the unsettling things about the movie, coming so soon after Newtown and today’s arguments about gun safety, is that Dinkum’s enlisted because he’s built a private armory in his barn, including powerful handguns, assault weapons and a huge machine gun. Of course he’s presented as a harmless eccentric—and a heroic one at that—but the idea of a guy like him, who’s obviously not entirely right in the head, with such an arsenal is troubling, to say the least.

But setting that aside, Dinkum’s firepower comes in awfully handy when Burrell and his minions ride down main street and aim to barrel their way through. Kim seems to revel in staging what amounts to a western-style showdown featuring small armies and weapons that go way beyond six-shooters. Then he adds a one-on-one face-off between Owens and Cortez, each equipped with a macho car that has to crawl around as they stalk one another in a bone-dry cornfield—one almost wishes that the children of the corn would show up to make the sequence even more absurd—before having them climb out of the vehicles to go at it with knuckles and knives.

Through all of this, Schwarzenegger allows a few moments of levity at his expense—especially about his age—and even attempts to act sorrowful when one of his posse bleeds out. (Guess which one.) But for the most part he goes his usual old route, delivering what Knauer obviously intended as newly-minded catch phrases with a stony face. (Sorry, I can’t remember any of them at the moment.)

The result is a throwback to Ah-nuld’s pre-gubernatorial fare, but done up at a far more modest budget that he was once accustomed to—a Republican contribution to deficit reduction, perhaps. And despite Kim’s obvious dedication and his star’s grim determination, it isn’t justified even by an appeal to nostalgia.

What we’re really waiting for is the return of Steven Seagal. I’ll bet his martial arts moves are as amazing as they always weren’t.