While it is about abuse of power, the story focuses closely on Jimmy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg), once a police officer, dropped from the force after beating accusations of a vigilante killing. Seven years later, he is an effective – if destitute –private detective who lives with his Chicana actress girlfriend (Natalie Martinez) and has an office and loyal office manager (Alona Tal) trying to collect on what her boss is owed. A week before the mayoral election between incumbent Mayor Hostetler (Russell Crowe) and liberal opponent Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper), Mayor Hostetler calls Taggart for help. The Mayor had been encouraging at the time of the detective’s trial and Taggart goes. It turns out Hostetler wants him to find out with whom his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is having an affair.
The story unwinds circuitously, a little at a time, as does the audience’s understanding of the protagonist. When a man is murdered – and it takes the murder of one man with whom Taggart has briefly conversed, rather than the horde of faceless extras made to die in other films – for Taggart to realize he has been manipulated. As more facts emerge, Taggart becomes determined to find out the role of the mayor and decides he must put a stop to it.
Moviegoers looking for over-the-top melodrama will not find it here; events happen as they do in life. Things go bad before Taggart knows it, or while he is looking right at it; either way, he has little control over what happens around him and can only watch it unfold, tense, confused, bemused, until he makes it his only business. It is a grim life he lives, but pluses exist. One of them is the knowledge that he can make a difference.
Mark Wahlberg is proficient and engaging in his role as the ex-cop whose life was railroaded by a choice he made and the action he took. Russell Crowe’s villainous timing is perfect – when he is menacing his wife, when he is good-old-boying the voters, when he is schmoozing with cronies. Ms. Zeta-Jones’s part as the mayor’s wife is not big enough for her, but she plays it perfectly. Costars Ms. Martinez, Griffin Dunne, Jeffrey Wright, Mr. Pepper are nicely cast, as are Ms. Tal, who fans will know as Jo Harvelle from The CW’s “Supernatural,” and James Ransone, who “The Wire” aficionados will know as Ziggy Sobotka from the docks.
Demanding and memorable songs by Moby (“Flower”) and Kanye West (“Power”) head the soundtrack; the score, by composers Atticus Ross (“Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”) and Leo Ross and Claudia Sarne (“The Book of Eli”), is dynamic. The colors and tones in which the movie is filmed are grays and blacks and whites, as are the characters and the actions they take. Things seem good but aren’t; things seem bad and are worse. The tensions between characters and between scenes are upheld throughout and carry the viewer along with them. The movie itself is eminently watchable. 109 min running time /Rated R