The political suspenser "Broken City" stars Mark Wahlberg as 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), who is vanishing for clandestine meetings with a confidant.

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. He snaps pictures of activities that seem incriminating, but the images are blurry, awkwardly framed and inconclusive -- much like the poorly focused film itself, which peters out after a promising start. Where most movies have a dramatic arc, this has a squiggle.

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.

If you don't let your blackmail victim know you've got the goods on him, you have no hold on him, so what's the point of being secretive about it?

As he begins to obsess over his own lover's trustworthiness, Taggart finds himself in a situation mirroring the mayor's. The situation boils over with her film debut, which includes an explicit lovemaking scene with her costar.

Taggart responds with his knuckles, diminishing the moral distance between himself and the obviously untrustworthy mayor. Wahlberg's character needs a more active conscience to function as a dramatic foil for Crowe. If the script was building a thematic parallel between the antihero and villain, it shouldn't have suspended construction so suddenly.

As the egocentric Hostetler, Crowe acquits himself well. He deploys a vast wardrobe of scowls and bogus smiles that slither across his face. Wahlberg repeats his typical macho primitivism. He's an appealing actor in the hands of the right director -- remember how he glowed onscreen in "The Fighter" -- but Allen Hughes, working for the first time apart from his brother/filmmaking partner Albert, can't sharpen him up.

Hughes' emphatic style pounds home the story's easy ironies and shapes the scenes so poorly we're not sure if they've made their point before they're gone. Zeta-Jones looks the part of a mature, glamorous wife, which is all that's required of her. 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.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186