Brad Furman’s “City of Lies” has been around since 2018, but without a theatrical release. Something that many would’ve assumed to be a given with stars like Johnny Depp and Forest Whitaker in the lead. However, it was shelved. Some speculated it was due to Depp’s personal life and legal issues. While others claimed it could potentially be the LAPD that had suppressed the film due to their department, and their involvement in the deaths of Biggie and Tupac, being a primary focus of the plot. Yet, with all the rumors and drama behind-the-scenes with this film, it finally has its wide US release. But does it deliver enough to make it a compelling murder-mystery?
Where “City of Lies” Thrives
The performances from Johnny Depp and Forest Whitaker would certainly be the strongest factor going for this movie. Both are able to capture the persona of their real-life characters with ease, and their screen presence effortlessly carries the film along its admittedly lengthy run-time. It was nice to see Depp back in a serious role that had some meat to it. He usually dons makeup and bold eccentric character-types that tend to conceal Depp’s more grounded side. But like he did in “Black Mass”, here Depp shows he still has the acting chops to pour himself into a layered role. One that isn’t hidden behind wild costuming and over-the-top makeup transformations.
Whitaker as was fantastic as well as this journalist working a retrospective on Biggie, who was using this retired cop’s knowledge for his research. Something that allowed Depp and Whitaker to get a good amount of screen-time together to showcase their chemistry. Which was able to conjure a surprising amount of emotion from many scenes as their friendship and comradery grew. Simply put, it was enjoyable to sit back and watch two great actors play off one another as they peel back the layers of this case and the cover-ups that took place. These guys are two old pros, and it shows in how they linger on the end of lines, the timing of their eye contact, and so much more to bring a sincerely to their partnership.
It was also fascinating to see this story explore the involvement of the LAPD with Death Row Records and Suge Knight, as well as their possible implication in setting up can carrying out the shooting of Biggie. There are many moving pieces and layers of deception in this case, and I do think the film takes the time to work it all in as smoothly as possible. So, this was a nice balance between documentary, and cinematic biopic. And I think the information that is delivered in the script is more than enough to keep you mentally invested if this case piques your curiosity.
The direction from Furman was solid to give this film your traditional crime-drama vibe. But there’s also an injection of hip-hop that creates a gritty tone which does pair nicely with the subject-matter. There’s an appealing style to the film, and an edginess, but it never gets in the way of the information on this case from taking center-stage.
Where “City of Lies” Falls Short
As I said earlier this movie does take the time to layout as much information revolving around this case as possible. However, it does result in a disjointed story-progression. We meet Depp’s Russell Poole, and Whitaker’s Jack Jackson, in the 2000’s and from there it uses the flashback method to fill in the events and layers of the case from the past back in the 90’s. While at the same time moving forward as Poole fills Jackson in on his involvement in the case, and what it cost him as far as family and career. Which does result in a fragmented flow and a lot of jumping around in the timelines.
This story structure is a bit like a hummingbird bouncing from topic to topic and it does get a slightly fatiguing making the length feel longer that it actually was. It also gets a bit confusing in sections. It jumps around frequently while also attempting to dispense a good amount of needed information through quick bouts of dialogue. So, you do have to pay attention. I think the time-line jumps should’ve been trimmed back. This would’ve allowed for longer sections of story to fill the run-time. Instead of having a couple hours, filled with story-points all hovering under the 10-minute mark.
Final Verdict on “City of Lies”
This is certainly a movie to check out if you are curious about the deaths of both Biggie and Tupac. It was interesting to learn about the involvement of the LAPD in many angles of this still unsolved case, and it was refreshing to see a film not hold back. This movie seems to stick to the facts as much as possible and in doing so that routinely puts the LAPD at the center of attention. It tries to answer as many questions as it can. But with this case still a mystery the movie will provoke thought. Plus, Depp and Whitaker are great, and watching them work off one another adds another element of enjoyment to pair with the intrigue of the real-life history depicted.