BROKEN CITY “Tell me again what you thought of my singing in Les Miz.”

IF YOU'RE IN NEED of a Russell Crowe palette cleanser (and really, who isn't?), Broken City will do. It's the first time flying solo for director Allen Hughes (who, with his brother Albert, has helmed such gems as From Hell and Menace II Society), as well as the first time out for screenwriter Brian Tucker, so it's perhaps unsurprising that Broken City takes few risks and breaks no ground. It is, however, a proficient, well-acted, and entertaining exercise in noir crime drama, which is a shrewd, crowd-pleasing strategy for a couple of guys who have something to prove, yet enough Hollywood cred to command performances from Crowe, along with Mark Wahlberg and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Wahlberg is so much less awkward than his last cinematic foray (Ted) as Billy Taggart, a good cop who let a case that got too personal go wrong and compromise his career. Seven years later, he's a struggling private investigator who finds himself at the behest of New York City's mayor, Hostetler (Crowe), a man whose world is made up of leather armchairs, blackmail, and political maneuvering as doubly dealt as his whiskeys. Crowe tries on a convincing native New York accent for the part, and as a whole plays the paunchier, more evil end of his acting range to good effect (maybe too good; it takes a bit longer than it probably should to stop rooting for the guy). Wahlberg, too, makes a sympathetic if challenging protagonist (police use-of-force watchdogs will squirm through his character's backstory).

However, the film is far from flawless. One of its most notable failings is the underdevelopment of its female characters. Natalie Martinez as Taggart's stunning actress girlfriend is necessary for establishing one pivotal plot point, then inconsistently dispatched with. Zeta-Jones as the mayor's wife, Cathleen, does dignified and glamorous as well as she ever has, but is barely allowed to scratch the surface of her character's grit. Meanwhile Alona Tal as Taggart's spunky, loyal assistant goes underappreciated on more than one level.

For a solidly entertaining bit of pulp with plenty of plot twists and double crosses, one could do a lot worse than Broken City, even if things never seem to get as weird or as dark as the dialogue continually alludes. But rather than bite off more than they can chew or attempt to reinvent the wheel, what Hughes and Tucker have done is establish a baseline of confidence from which audiences can look forward to watching them build.