“City of Lies” kicks off with intensity. A sequence of road rage unfolds, while at the same time we are told it’s being set in 1997. The road rage opener becomes another situation of us witnessing a black man being gunned down by a white man. But as the scene comes to a close, we hear in a voice-over, the voice of Johnny Depp’s L.A.P.D. detective Russell Poole. He tells us this shooting took place only eight miles northeast of where Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G., had been gunned down nine days prior.
Depp as Poole says: “I didn’t connect everything at first. But when I did, I lost everything that mattered. That day on that street corner, the first door to the labyrinth opened”. Turns out the black man who was shot down, had done security work on the side for Suge Knight and Knight’s record label, Death Row Records. This has just become more than a fit of road rage because this is only one of many pieces into the big investigation in the killing of legendary rapper The Notorious B.I.G, aka: Biggie Smalls. Let the road to corruption begin….
Now if your thinking. Why have I never heard of this movie? Did this movie just drop out of nowhere? Well your right to think both, see as how “City Of Lies” was filmed between 2016 and 2017. Originally set to have a theatrical release in September 2018, by Global Road Entertainment who acquired the film’s US distribution rights and was co-financed by Miramax. It was pulled from the schedule in August 2018, to eventually be acquired by Saban Films and finally gets a release date of March 19th 2021, to be followed by a video on demand release April 9th.
The film was pulled from the schedule reportedly due to an ongoing lawsuit involving Johnny Depp and the film’s location manager. Allegedly Depp assaulted Gregg “Rocky” Brooks, the films location manager by punching him twice in the ribs. He also accused Depp of verbally assaulting him and saying he’d pay the crew member $100,000 to hit him back. The suit also claims that he’d been fired from the film after he refused to sign an NDA that would prevent him from suing the actor. Reports later surfaced that Depp’s legal troubles was used as a scapegoat and the film in fact may be being suppressed by the Los Angeles Police Department and other various players who are being implicated in the film and who do not want the film released to the public.
I can definitely see how the latter would want to keep the film under wraps as, “City of Lies” has a lot on its mind and isn’t afraid to throw around or name names throughout. Based on the book “Labyrinth” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Randall Sullivan. Director Brad Furman and screenwriter Christian Contreras (making his feature length screenwriting debut) deliver a gritty, provocative and involving crime drama.
Furman’s film is a throwback to the cop procedurals of the 70’s, the kind of material that you would see Sidney Lumet’s name attached to. Aside from “City Of Lies” being an inspiration of Lumet’s (“Serpico”, “Dog Day Afternoon”, “12 Angry Men”) films there is also quite a bit of Oliver Stone’s “JFK”. In the sense that “City Of Lies” investigation has almost as many twists, turns, false leads and possible suspects as Oliver Stone’s film. Like Stone’s “JFK”, that’s where “City Of Lies” is at it’s strongest and most intriguing.
“City Of Lies” stars a terrific Johnny Depp giving a low-key but effective performance as real life L.A.P.D. detective Russell Poole. Oscar winner Forest Whitaker stars opposite Depp, as a journalist named Jack Jackson, who is essentially a fictionalized version of the book’s author Randall Sullivan, which the film is based on.
After the films road rage opener, we see Russell working to connect the dots between a rogue group of corrupt L.A. police officers and the shootings of Tupac Shakur and Biggie. The shootings are just happening a few years after the Rodney King beating and the O.J. trial and this is the last thing the Los Angeles Police Department wants is another scandal or another ugly blemish on an already severely damaged reputation. Depp’s Poole is the classic loner rebel cop who refuses to fall into the same corruption as his fellow L.A.P.D. colleagues. He becomes obsessed with piecing the puzzle together and finding the truth, all the while alienating most of his colleagues and to the point of becoming estranged from his wife and son.
Cut to 18 years later, where we now see Whitaker’s Jackson hounding detective Poole at his shabby apartment until Poole finally agrees to team up with Jackson to re-investigate the murder of Biggie (We instantly know Poole is still obsessed with the cases because he has that movie detective cliche of his home office being covered in a collage of photos, newspaper clippings and Post-It notes covering his walls). Depp and Whitaker are back onscreen together after starring together in Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” thirty five years ago. The two movie stars deliver stripped down, authentic performances with the handheld camera work adding to the docudrama style.
That camera work comes from Brad Furman, who has experience in the crime drama and thriller genre. In 2011 he broke out as a director to watch for in one of the years best movies of that year, the Matthew McConaughey legal thriller “Lincoln Lawyer”. His next film was “Runner Runner”, with Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake. It’s the kind of toilet stinker film, that could end any directors career (it was that bad. no really it was). Then Furman came back with a vengeance in 2016 with the highly underrated “The Infiltrator” with Bryan Cranston. His newest “City Of Lies” is far from being a dud and I’d rank this third in his best works after “Lincoln Lawyer” and “The Infiltrator”.
The killings of The Notorious B.I.G and Tupac Shakur have long captivated the public imagination in a case that is still to this day unsolved. Indicative of both the furiously violent East vs West Coast hip hop rivalry of the nineties and widespread corruption within the L.A.P.D., this story has been subject to a huge number of documentaries, books and TV series. “City Of Lies” actually isn’t the most recent example, as it predates the similarly themed TV series “Unsolved” as well as the brand-new Netflix doc “Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell”.
But “City of Lies” is the first real cinematic try at dissecting the murder investigation and makes me wonder what Johnny Depp saw in the movie to not only star but serve as as an executive producer. It feels like an odd choice for him, especially seeing his previous filmography. I guess the closest to this is “Donnie Brasco”, but whatever his decision it’s nice to see Depp attempt something different.
“City of Lies” takes an interesting deep dive into the circumstances surrounding Biggie’s murder, with the film fingering an L.A.P.D. cover-up and a relationship with Suge Knight’s Death Row Records as the likely culprits behind the shooting. Furman presents a film that is as engrossing as it is a damning indictment of the police, Suge Knight and the media that have corrupted Los Angeles to its very core. It tries to prove that the “City of Angels” has become a “City Of Lies” in a playground for devils with bad intentions.
“City of Lies” has so many name drops that it becomes like an episode of “Downton Abbey”, where a flow chart is needed to help organize the names. In fact Furman and his screenwriter have kept a number of real names in the film, including characters Rafael Perez and Frank Lyga. During the 90’s, these two policemen were very infamous in the Rampart Scandal, on which this film also delves into. Thankfully Furman ties the loose ends together of the many characters in the films finale and explains what happened to the principal players. Jamal Woolard who played Biggie in 2009’s Biggie biopic “Notorious” and 2017’s Tupac biopic “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.
As an investigative thriller, “City of Lies” does it’s best to play out like an informative A&E true crime documentary, by laying out the players, tactics and motives behind the murder of a hip hop star, who was only 24 years old. Furman wants us to see the same thing Poole sees in his approach. Poole doesn’t approach it as the murder of a celebrity, but that of a young man, son, father and friend. Even Violeta Wallace (mother of Biggie) makes a cameo as herself in a powerful third act scene sharing the screen with Depp and Whitaker. Russell Poole was a Los Angeles police officer for 18 years, who took pride in his police work by representing the force as he believed it to be….
An organization that stood for service and honour within a city that was torn apart by racial division. Poole, who remained somewhat of a controversial figure is portrayed as a heroic and determined cop, who was eager to deliver justice for Biggie’s family and his mother. As I mentioned previously that Furman also goes further by tying into the Rampart scandal that involved dirty officers. They were clear influences of cop movies for at least a decade, with “Training Day” and “The Shield” being the most influential by those events.
Director Brad Furman plays up the puzzle aspects of the case, introducing multiple suspects and authority figures in working to break down the shootings, in one of the films best sequences of using models and toy cars to help visualize the shooting. For detective Poole it was a case that turned into an obsession and a final nail into his career and reputation, when uncomfortable questions were met by a wall of silence from his brothers in blue.
The only person who would listen to Poole’s evidence was a journalist named Randall Sullivan, played here as Jack Jackson (Forest Whitaker), a journalist for the Los Angeles times who is dealing with a damaged reputation of his own. Forest Whitaker is second-billed, but this is completely Depp’s show and it feels like a waste of Whitaker’s talents as he doesn’t really get to stretch much of his acting skills.
Unfortunately the scenes that feature Depp and Whitaker onscreen together are the films weakest points. There’s just not much to their scenes as opposed to the scenes where Furman is better in detailing the investigation and the rough edges of the case. In those scenes, Furman uses a filter when flashing back to the 90’s timeline and stylistically mutes the color of the film to distinguish between the two timelines.
The writing here by Christian Contreras is actually pretty brilliant, because he made me feel as if I was getting all the answers and that I was finally going to get the truth. Whether or not any of screenwriter Christian Contreras facts are true, “City of Lies” still remains a slick procedural in which Johnny Depp gives a surprisingly low-key, but effective performance as the real life L.A.P.D. detective and gives his best performance in quite some time. Furman’s film is a true-crime thriller that engrosses with its methodical look into murder and corruption in Los Angeles. It’s a valuable and somewhat illuminating look back at the senseless killings of two rap icons just six months apart of each other.
“City Of Lies” is gutsy in dropping names of certain members of the L.A.P.D. who doubled as gang affiliated security for Death Row Records label head Shug Knight. As Biggie’s murder was always thought to be a retaliation killing, but the actual shooters have been elusive and with Poole being fairly certain that members of the L.A.P.D. were likely suspects, is probably the best explanation why the case still remains cold to this day.
“City Of Lies” is a compelling drama with real-world concerns that shouldn’t be ignored and it deserves better treatment, than to be the victim of an actor’s legal battles. Nor does it deserve to be swept under the rug because the L.A.P.D. refuses to admit their involvement into one of the biggest unsolved murder cases of the 90’s.
GRADE: ★★★1/2☆☆ (3.5 out of 5)