PLOT: LAPD Detective Russell Poole (Johnny Depp) investigates the murder of the Notorious B.I.G on the eve of the Ramparts scandal.
REVIEW: The killings of The Notorious B.I.G and Tupac Shakur have long captivated the public imagination. Indicative of both the furiously violent East vs West Coast hip-hop rivalry of the nineties and widespread corruption within the LAPD in the wake of Rodney King and O.J. Simpson, this story has been fodder for a huge number of documentaries, books, and TV series. CITY OF LIES actually isn’t the most recent example, with it predating the similarly themed TV series Unsolved as well as the brand-new Netflix doc Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell. You see, City of Lies was shot way back in 2016-2017, with it originally slated for a wide theatrical release in the fall of 2018, only to be pulled at the eleventh hour reportedly due to the scandal surrounding Johnny Depp’s legal battles. Some involved with the film believe the reason it was scrapped had more to do with the way the LAPD was portrayed, as explained in this intriguing Daily Beast write-up.
Whatever the case, three years later, City of Lies is getting a quick, low-key release via Saban (the trailer only dropped recently) on VOD, which is a shame as it’s not a bad movie at all. Very much in line with director Brad Furman’s previous The Infiltrator (and underrated Bryan Cranston thriller), City of Lies takes an interesting deep-dive into the circumstances surrounding Biggie’s murder, with them fingering an LAPD cover-up and a relationship with Suge Knight’s Death Row Records as the likely culprits.
Whether or not any of this is true, City of Lies is still a slick procedural, and while his recent troubles have resulted in a long screen absence, Johnny Depp is surprisingly low-key and effective as the dogged Russell Poole. My issue with Depp has always been that he has a tendency towards gimmicks and hamminess, with movies that he’s not hiding behind obnoxious make-up and accents few and far between. Other than an off-putting blonde mustache that doesn’t match his hair, Depp plays Poole in a straight-forward way that’s a refreshing change of pace and would have likely been appreciated by fans had the film been widely seen.
Poole, who remains a controversial figure, is portrayed as a heroic cop eager to deliver some measure of justice for Biggie’s mother (with Violetta Wallace playing herself). The story indeed seems stranger than fiction, with it tying into the crazy Rampart scandal that involved dirty officers that influenced cop movies for at least a decade, with Training Day and The Shield apparently both directly influenced by those events. Fans of Biggie and Tupac may be disappointed to learn that both men are relatively minor figures here, with this more about police corruption than the rappers themselves. Even Suge Knight is ultimately portrayed as a minor character.
Nonetheless, City of Lies has a juicy supporting cast, with the perennially underrated Toby Huss as Depp’s partner, while Michael Pare shows up in a small role as a Vegas cop investigating the Tupac killing. Shea Whigham has a juicy role as real-life cop Frank Lyga, who inadvertently kicks things off through a road rage shoot-out with someone who turns out to be another cop with deep ties to Death Row. Forest Whitaker is second-billed as a journalist who teams with the older Poole, but it feels like a waste of his talents as his only role here is to interview Poole, although he does have a juicy scene opposite legendary heavy Peter Greene, cast against type as a cop.
While City of Lies isn’t an exceptional film by any means and likely would have only caused a minor stir in theaters, it’s still a rock-solid procedural thriller that’s worth watching for anyone with an interest in the case. Depp fans will also appreciate one of his subtlest performances in years, and hopefully, this is a venue he continues to explore, as no matter what his legal troubles may be, he remains a talented actor with loads of fans.