Having just endured another election year, we’re all too aware of wheedling politicians and their wheezing lackeys. We’re not even surprised to hear about bureaucratic shenanigans and fiefdom intrigue. But we’re all hoping that eventually, the real scoundrels will make themselves known simply by continuing to be themselves. “By their fruits you shall know them” (Matthew 7:20), and all that.
Mayor Hostetler (Russell Crowe) is just the sort of hard-driving, cosmopolitan politician we would expect from a modern metropolis like New York City: handsome and charming enough to be appealing on television, yet tough enough to endure the back-room political brawls, and not so naïve as to believe everything he hears, or even his own press releases. But this particular mayor has a number of dirty tricks up his sleeve, and in order to rule over that shadowy empire of influence, he has to develop a cadre of certain unscrupulous minions who can be absolutely trusted, if for no other reason than he has something on them.
Mark Wahlberg plays Billy Taggart, the undercover cop who several years ago was acquitted of the white-on-black street shooting that brought all kinds of unwelcome publicity to the NYPD. After the big trial, he didn’t even bother to return to the police force, instead opting to remain in the seamy underside as a private detective, a purveyor of voyeurism with a purpose. Yes, he’ll hire out to catch philandering spouses on camera. And our crafty mayor, on the eve of his re-election, enlists Wahlberg’s aid because he claims his beautiful wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is cheating on him.
Actually, she is arranging clandestine meetings, but everything is not as it appears. Inserted into this seamy, unseemly but familiar scenario is the real issue here: a big commercial real estate deal. It seems the mayor is in favor of converting a certain housing development to provide affordable rental space, but he’s got ulterior motives that he’s not revealing to anyone. There’s a police commissioner who’s his political enemy, but may also have a personal vendetta to settle. Then there’s the mayor’s election opponent, a rich guy running a populist campaign, which we all know is precarious at best. Even worse, he is hotly contesting the advice of his own campaign manager, who has his own secrets, as well.
Sound a little too convoluted for one movie? Probably because it is. The plot is much more cerebral than a standard action flick, even involving some light satire aimed at overweening politicians. Wahlberg’s character, though tough enough on the streets, is also fighting an alcoholism demon, and besides that, is losing his grip on his marriage to a beautiful woman who, of all things, wants to be an actor. And how ironic is it that her turn at stardom involves a gritty sex scene, which offends Wahlberg’s delicate sensitivities? Does anybody else remember Boogie Nights (1997), or are they just playing with us here?
Well, sometimes doing the right thing means ‘fessing up to something you had actually gotten away with, when paying the piper seems especially onerous. And sometimes the public figure you’d like to trust turns out to have feet of clay. It’s just that he doesn’t always get his just deserts in real life. He may just get the dessert.
Ronald P. Salfen is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.