Director Brad Furman’s “City of Lies” begins with a violent altercation on an open road between two men.
The clash becomes a central event that the story keeps returning to: exactly why two angry drivers egg each other on, chase one another down a busy street and then open fire in broad daylight is a puzzle assigned to Los Angeles Police Department Detective Russell Poole (Johnny Depp).
What appears to be a random incident becomes a missing puzzle piece in Poole’s career-defining investigation into the murder of Christopher “The Notorious B.I.G.”/ Biggie Smalls” Wallace. With the assistance of Jackson, a nosy reporter (Forest Whitaker), Poole alienates his colleagues by searching for the answers long after the killings of Tupac Shakur and Wallace were fresh headlines.
Neither a typical police procedural or an easy cash-in on Wallace’s legacy, Furman’s film is serious-minded and sincere, has a clear agenda of implicating the LAPD of the death of Christopher Wallace and presents the alleged history of the LAPD officers who were working for Death Row Records.
“City of Lies” is a flawed work but I admire its aggressive tendency to name names and, like its protagonist, persist on seeking the truth.
Based on Randall Sullivan’s 2002 true crime book, “LAbyrinth,” (clever title, but I’m glad they changed it and avoided kids confusing this with Jim Henson’s “Labyrinth”), it’s set in 2015 but constantly flashes back to the events of 1997 to build its case.
Scenes of Poole and Jackson bantering over specifics are a means for us to jump around the timeline, with Poole’s modern-day resistance countered with the suspicious details of his late ’90s investigations.
Fuhrman hit it big with the release of Matthew McConaughey’s initial comeback vehicle, “The Lincoln Lawyer” (2011), only to squander that hit with the deeply troubled Ben Affleck/ Justin Timberlake drama “Runner Runner” (2013) and rebound somewhat with the Bryan Cranston thriller, “The Infiator” (2016).
“City of Lies” is too uneven to be a total success, but I’m impressed by the filmmaker’s commitment to such a project with such a large scale and emotionally charged material. It concludes with the title card, stating, “more than 50 percent of African-American murders remain unsolved.”
There is an unmistakable immediacy here.
Filmed in 2016-2017, originally scheduled to open in 2018, this was made before Johnny Depp’s red-hot, post-pirate film career was on the downslide.
Despite trailers and posters in circulation, “City of Lies” was pulled indefinitely for legal reasons (rumored to be either a Depp-related incident of harassment on set, an unhappy LAPD trying to prevent the release, or both). How old is this movie? Miramax is listed as one of the distributors, complete with their logo intact over the opening.
The third act sight of Depp staring at the statue of Lady Justice is ironic, as the actor’s own recent court case and legal troubles have plagued his monstrously successful career. Seeing Depp here, in light of his recent troubles, is a distraction, though he and Whitaker are giving generally good but overly mannered turns.
At one point, prior to his “Rocky Balboa” (2006), Sylvester Stallone was circling this as his comeback film (the project was titled “Rampart Scandal” at that point). Stallone would have been a more intriguing choice for Poole, as his reserved, internal method of building character would have better served the film.
On the other hand, the supporting cast is a collection of superb character actors in their element: Toby Huss is vivid as Poole’s partner, Shea Whigham gives us layers to his morally questionable Det. Lyga, whose crime in the opening scene sets the story in motion.
Michael Pare is unrecognizable in a loaded scene involving Mark Fuhrman’s involvement in the O.J. Simpson trial and the always intense and welcome Peter Greene has a simmering single scene that he singlehandedly hijacks from Whitaker.
There’s also Voletta Wallace, playing herself, sharing a scene with Depp and Whitaker, in which she discusses the injustice taking place. Her scenes suggest the film overall has a real aim to make audiences reconsider this story, which is why this so much more interesting than either “All Eyez on Me” (2017) or “Notorious” (2009).
Still, as much as this digs into the subject matter and is flush with music and imagery of Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, it is far from a definitive film on the subject.
While the Depp and Whitaker scenes are meant to provide a buddy-cop angle, those moments feel obligatory and old hat. When the focus is on the case and the long list of suspects, the story is gripping. There’s a riveting scene in which Wallace’s murder is recreated by toy models and the third act is especially engaging.
There’s also a surprise MC Hammer reference that is genuinely funny.
This wants to be a contemporary “L.A. Confidential” and doesn’t come close, as well as a “Zodiac”-examination of how obsession with an unsolved case takes a toll on this unwilling to give up. It reminded me of “Crossing Over,” another delayed, star-studded, issue-driven and controversial drama that meant well and was all but ignored.
“City of Lies” is engrossing at times but the Depp/Whitaker scenes don’t work. It’s been made with such passion that it’s hard to dismiss, even if the end result is in the category of close-but-not-quite
Two and a Half Stars
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