‘City of Lies’: Film Review

Brad Furman (‘The Lincoln Lawyer’) directs Johnny Depp and Forest Whitaker in an adaptation of a book about theories that Los Angeles cops helped kill The Notorious B.I.G.

Brad Furman’s City of Lies, a police procedural asking who killed Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace, is set nearly two decades after that famous murder was given up by most as unsolvable. Given its lost-cause vibe, there’s something appropriate about the film’s difficulties getting to the screen: Originally slated for 2018 release, it was shelved amid co-star Johnny Depp’s nascent scandals — and, some hint, pressure from the LAPD. Depp’s troubles only grew in the interim, to the point where many moviegoers will now dismiss the film out of hand. But this is a compelling drama with real-world concerns that shouldn’t be ignored, and it deserves better than to be the victim of an actor’s offscreen sins.

Wearing a belly and a limp, Depp shows the toll years of stubbornness have taken on former LAPD detective Russell Poole without projecting the kind of haunted passion that has become cliche in many cold-case detective tales. Poole was part of the team investigating the crime, and as the movie tells it (based on Labyrinth, Randall Sullivan’s book about Poole’s theories), he was pushed out of the force for pursuing leads that threatened his colleagues. Forest Whitaker, as a journalist who tracks down Poole many years after the killing, offers a different energy — the writer driven less by professionalism than by personal curiosity and embarrassment over having gotten things very wrong years ago, when he produced a piece alleging that Wallace had rival Tupac Shakur killed.

The Bottom Line

A muckraking drama that deserves to be seen.

RELEASE DATE Mar 19, 2021

Whitaker’s Darius Jackson looks up Poole when he’s assigned to a retrospective story on the anniversary of Wallace’s death. Their first meeting is inauspicious, but what the reporter sees in the retired cop’s apartment — walls filled with clues to a mystery he still wants to solve — encourages Jackson to keep coming back. Soon Poole is sharing what he believes, and the film, via plentiful flashbacks, is showing how he got on the wrong side of his superiors.

The events and the players are too complicated to recount here, but Christian Contreras’ script wrangles things into a shape that makes sense even for a viewer who hasn’t given much thought to the mystery in more than a decade. What changes he makes to established facts (like the timing of Poole’s promotion to the Robbery/Homicide division) look to a layman like innocent alterations for the sake of storytelling, not stacking the deck in favor of his protagonist. But make no mistake: The film believes Poole’s theory that some in the LAPD helped kill Biggie (a claim some think has been disproven), and that others covered it up. And it sells that narrative convincingly.

Bringing a bit of Sidney Lumet institutional drama to a post-Rodney King Los Angeles, the film’s long flashbacks play up the subtle and unsubtle ways in which multiple layers of supervisors discourage the true-believer Poole (a second-generation cop who clings to protect-and-serve ideals) from following inconvenient leads. Hyper-cognizant of race from its opening scene, the script suggests that Poole’s bosses (at least one of them openly racist) are mostly frightened of “optics,” urging him to see the “big picture”: After the 1991 King debacle, they want all racially sensitive cases to be solved with the least possible controversy. They’re also afraid that, should word get out that an officer might be involved in the star’s murder, the ensuing lawsuits could (according to Poole) literally bankrupt the city of Los Angeles.

Though it mostly takes the form of a connect-the-dots procedural, the film finds a couple of opportunities for effective action scenes, including one that envisions the beginning of the Rampart corruption scandal. Poole eventually comes to believe that his department played up that scandal because, in scorching the earth, it ensured that the players in the Wallace killing wouldn’t be pursued for that crime. True or not, that’s probably the closest the film gets to the JFK-style paranoia thriller, in which the line between outrageous contrivance and complete plausibility is razor-thin.

A viewer would have to be pretty complacent (or know a lot more about the case than this film explains) not to leave Lies feeling that the Wallace case is a shameful — and still fixable, to some extent — example of justice denied. And if truth can be swept under the rug in such a high-profile murder, what about killings of people nobody knows? Closing titles assert that more than half of murders with Black victims go unsolved. And that’s a disgrace spreading far, far beyond the borders of Los Angeles.

Production company: Good Films
Distributor: Saban Films
Cast: Johnny Depp, Forest Whitaker
Director: Brad Furman
Screenwriter: Christian Contreras
Producers: Paul Brennan, Stuart Manashil, Miriam Segal
Director of photography: Monika Lenczewska
Production designer: Clay Griffith
Costume designer: Denise Wingate
Editor: Leo Trombetta
Composer: Chris Hajian
Casting director: Lauren Grey

Rated R, 111 minutes