City of Lies (2021)

Johnny Depp plays LAPD detective Russell Poole in "City of Lies" (image: Saban Films)

Review

CITY OF LIES (2021)

Johnny Depp, Forest Whitaker, Rockmond Dunbar, Neil Brown Jr., Xander Berkeley, Toby Huss, Shea Whigham, Wynn Everett

Directed by Brad Furman

By the time Brad Furman’s “City of Lies” comes to a close, we won’t be any closer to finding out who murdered Christopher Wallace aka The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur. But the film based on Rolling Stone Pulitzer Prize-winning author Randall Sullivan’s investigative novel “Labyrinth” does a consummate job of exposing the level of corruption in the L.A.P.D. that led to a coverup regarding the slain rappers, their deaths just six months apart. Johnny Depp plays the detective that exposed that corruption while Forest Whitaker portrays a journalist working on an article about the unsolved crimes two decades later.

“City of Lies” is a good film. So why was it shelved for two years? Some sources say it was Depp’s headline-making behavior that put the film in limbo while others elude that the LAPD had something to do with blocking its release. The conspiracy theories are online just hit Google and head down the rabbit hole. If the events in Furman’s thriller are factual it’s pretty damming stuff for a police department that’s been rocked with scandals including Rodney King and O.J. Simpson. In the late 90s, over 70 police officers from LAPD’s Rampart Division were implicated in the widespread corruption which Furman alludes to in the story while keeping the focus on the Biggie Smalls investigation.

Jumping back and forth between 1997 and 2015, “City of Lies” begins with a flashback featuring Shea Whigham sporting a mullet as undercover detective Frank Lyga. A road rage incident escalates and comes to a violent end with Lyga shooting and killing black driver Kevin Gaines (Amin Joseph) who turns out to be an off-duty LAPD officer. Detective Russell Poole (Johnny Depp) shows up to investigate the incident and immediately he becomes entangled in an intricate web of deceit that points to Biggie’s murder just nine days earlier. Gaines’s car is registered to Death Row Records whose CEO Suge Knight becomes a prime suspect in Biggie’s murder.

The timeline moves to present-day 2015 (the time the film was shot) where we find Poole living alone in a small apartment, shamed after being pushed out of the force for being L.A.’s version of Serpico. His walls are adorned with photos, clippings, and notes related to the Biggie case which remains unsolved. His tenure as a detective has taken its toll mentally and physically. Depp using prosthetics to appear heavier and older walks with a limp, an injury Poole acquired while taking down a crooked cop. The former detective’s obsession with the case cost him his family and now the closest he gets to his grown son is watching him play minor league ball.

Forest Whitaker reunites with Depp after the two starred together in “Platoon” thirty-six years ago to play journalist Jack Jackson who covered the Biggie-Tupac murders in the 90s with a documentary that featured misinformation. He’s doing a retrospective piece for his outlet and forces his way into Poole’s life to get the facts on the case with the hope of identifying who shot the Notorious B.I.G. but sadly there are no smoking guns.

The scenes with both Whitaker and Depp are the film’s strongest as if we’re watching a Masterclass as these two exceptional actors inject vitality into the story that moves at times at a moderate pace. They have conflicting personalities and viewpoints but eventually the two team up to reinvestigate the case. Unlike Depp’s Poole, Whitaker’s Jackson is one of the few characters in the film that is not based on an actual person, although he seems to be playing a fictionalized version of “Labyrinth” author Randall Sullivan whose non-fiction book serves as the basis for the film.

Furman uses a filter when flashing back to the 90s muting the color to distinguish between the two timelines. Jamal Woolard who played Biggie in 2009’s “Notorious” and 2017’s “All Eyez on Me” takes on the role a third time in a cameo for the scene that depicts the night the rapper was gunned down after leaving Vibe Magazine's post-Soul Train Awards party. Production designer Clay A. Griffith and costume designer Denise Wingate strive for authenticity while recreating that fatal night.

The film also features a cameo by Biggie’s mother Voletta Wallace playing herself in a poignant scene near the end that takes place in a diner opposite Depp and Whitaker. It’s a significant moment in the film that explains a few of the how’s and why’s in regard to the case remaining unsolved. The film’s only fault is that so many names are brought up in the conspiracy that a flow chart is needed but Furman ties the loose ends together in the finale that explains what happened to the principal players.

(3 stars)

Now showing in theaters.

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Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic. 

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Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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