Don’t ask me why this film has been delayed since 2018, or why it’s finally coming out now, but City of Lies, the dramatized, estate-sanctioned look at the murder investigation of Christopher Wallace (aka The Notorious B.I.G.) is finally being released, I think. Directed by Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer, The Inflitrator), City of Lies stars Johnny Depp as LAPD Detective Russell Poole, who spent almost 20 years of his life, officially and unofficially, attempting to solve this case because it drove him crazy that no one else on the force seemed to want the case resolved. The film is adapted by Christian Contreras from Randall Sullivan’s book LAbyrinth.
When journalist Jack Johnson (Forest Whitaker) comes calling, attempting to get quotes from Poole for a 20th anniversary piece on the murder, it stirs up the detective enough to lay out his case to Johnson (and us) while attempting to revisit several old leads, hoping for fresh information. I’ve read enough articles over the years on the case to know that certain members of the LAPD doubled as gang-affiliated security for Death Row Records label head Shug Knight, whose top-selling artist, Tupac Shakur, was gunned down six months before Wallace. Biggie’s murder was always thought to be a retaliation killing, but the actual shooters have been elusive—even though Detective Poole was fairly certain that members of the LAPD were likely suspects, which probably explains why the case remains cold.
With almost as many twists, turns, false leads, and possible suspects as the JFK assassination, City of Lies is a great showcase for Depp and Whitaker, who start out as distrusting adversaries. But as Poole begins to believe that Jackson is actually after the truth and not just headlines, they become partners in this investigation. The film also explores the backdrop of the city at the time, which was still reeling from the riots after the verdict in the case against four police officers accused of beating Rodney King, the racially charged O.J. Simpson trial, and years of distrust of the police in the Black community. Having these two rappers’ killings be the result of some sort of East Coast/West Coast rivalry made for a convenient distraction from the far more explosive idea that the police killed Wallace.
There are some solid supporting performancse from Toby Huss as Poole’s longtime partner; Dayton Callie as his lieutenant; Shea Whigham (let’s be honest, when you have Whigham in your movie, you immediately have my attention and respect) as an undercover officer who inadvertently breaks the case wide open for Poole; Xander Berkeley as Jackson’s editor; and even Wallace’s mother Voletta as herself. Aside from moving a bit slowly at times, City of Lies is a solid, believable detective story. The only thing that makes it seem larger than life are the identities of the victims, but Depp’s portrayal of a man lost to his obsession is dead on, and I was gripped by Poole’s tragic story. Whitaker also seems to have a bit more pep in his step, playing this man of action, eager to set right again a few factual wrongs he made 20 years ago. If you can find it, City of Lies is a decent little movie.
The film is now playing in select theaters and via VOD.
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