Review: Long delayed 'City of Lies' lacks urgency
Courtesy of Saban Films
Filmed in 2016 (the trailer debuted in a pre-COVID world) Brad Furman’s “City of Lies” arrives at a moment when questions surrounding the death of Christopher Wallace – (better known as Notorious B.I.G) – are growing louder, but the film doesn’t seem interested in its own story. Legal troubles surrounding its lead star, a grizzled Johnny Depp, and mounting pressure from the LAPD kept the film in limbo and its urgency has diminished. The initial case, based on journalist Randall Sullivan’s novel “LAbyrinth,” is one worth solving, and considering Wallace’s stature in the rap community, fans should be eager to check out Furman’s view on the investigation that yielded no culprits. However, “City of Lies” plays like any standard cop procedural and its flimsy production values suggest an extended rerun of “Law and Order” than a feature film.
Picking up almost 25 years since Wallace was slain in a drive-by shooting, Depp plays retired detective Russell Poole who was originally assigned to the homicide investigation. He connects with Darius Jackson (Forest Whitaker) a reporter looking for insight to his anniversary piece on Biggie’s death. Poole believed Suge Knight, a high-profile rap mogul, ordered the hit after Tupac Shakur’s murder (another crime that’s never been solved) and was aided by crooked cops in the Los Angeles Police Department. His theories were never taken at face value and Poole decides to unspool these findings to Jackson who believes every word.
Told mostly through flashbacks, “City of Lies” presents an uneven picture of the crime and suspects, going down a dark rabbit hole of corruption and greed that maneuvers in circles. At times, Depp can manifest a believable caricature of Poole, but his performance lacks energy. Likewise for Whitaker playing the repressed once lauded journalist striving for a career resurgence. Together they give “City of Lies” pedigree, though Christian Contreras’s hollow screenplay doesn’t give them much beyond an array of genre clichés. Stakeouts, interrogations, and gun fights populate the film’s latter half, but even the lens of Monika Lenczewska – who’s capture of vintage LA noire is the film's MVP – can’t salvage “City of Lies” lackluster focus.
The disparity in unsolved African American murders - 50% according to the closing credits - is a startling reminder why films like “City of Lies” should exist. Audiences can appreciate a film that has a social justice agenda (and provide answers to Biggie’s murder) but Furman’s hazy central relationship and bland, overly familiar approach doesn’t push the conversation forward.
CITY OF LIES opens in theaters March 19th, and will be available digitally and On Demand April 9th.