Film Review: City of Lies

STUDIO: Saban Films | DIRECTOR: Brad Furman | CAST: Johnny Depp, Forest Whitaker, Toby Huss, Dayton Callie, Shea Whigham
RELEASE DATE: March 19, 2021 (Theatrical); April 9, 2021 (Digital/On Demand)
SPECS: R | 112 min. | Crime drama

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie 

If I were Johnny Depp or director Brad Furman, I would make sure my papers were in order the next time I drove in Los Angeles.

That’s because City of Lies, directed by Furman (The Infiltator) and starring Depp (he also co-produced), is a searing indictment of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Based on the book LAbyrinth by Randall Sullivan , the film offers Depp (Black Mass) a juicy role as Russell Poole, a real-life veteran police detective who, in 1997, is tasked with investigating the murder of Christopher Wallace—aka “the Notorious B.I.G.” or “Biggie Smalls”—who was gunned down in L.A. at the age of 24. The deeper the by-the-book Poole gets into the investigation, the more obsessed he becomes about solving the case. Paralleling that is Poole learning more and more unsettling things about the LAPD, whose officials seem to fear Poole uncovering pertinent information involving the 1996 Las Vegas shooting of rapper Tupac Shakur, hip hop music tycoon Suge Knight and their ties to the Wallace murder, LA gangs and the force itself.

Trailing Poole is fearless L.A. Times journalist Jack Johnson (Forest Whitaker, Black Panther), a fictional figure based on author Sullivan. Poole is initially  uncomfortable with the reporter asking him questions, but both eventually become pals, recognizing their similarities while sharing the same goal of cracking the case.

At first, City of Lies unspools in a disorienting style, filled with snippets of documentary footage, blasts of rap music and shaky hand-held sequences shot for the film. Even when it settles into focusing on Depp’s tightly-wound Poole and his exhaustive, years-long search into the case, close attention must be paid as director Furman shuffles time periods throughout.

City of Lies evolves into a tough, first-rate police procedural—something akin to a top-flight Sidney Lumet effort– and a fine character study of Poole, a man so overwhelmed by his assignment that he pays little attention to anything else. Filling in the blanks of his character are his relationship to the journalist and recurrent scenes involving his estranged son, an aspiring baseball player. The film is also filled with great character bits from such stalwart performers as Xander Berkeley (Repo Chick)  and Shea Whigham (The Wolf of Wall Street), along with a compelling scene featuring Voletta Wallace, Curtis Wallace’s real mother, playing herself.

City of Lies is finally being made available years after it was pulled from its original September 2018 theatrical release date. Was it because of a scrap Depp had with a location manager that led to a lawsuit? Financial troubles its distributor was having?  Something to do with the negative publicity surrounding Depp and his personal life at the time?

The latest story to surface about the high-profile delay is that the LAPD had a hand in it, angrily holding up the film’s public rollout because of their disturbingly negative portrayal in the picture.

The true story of the release of City of Lies may never be made known. What is clear, however, is that the mystery of the murder of the Notorious B.I.G. remains unsolved after 25 years.

About Irv

Irv Slifkin has been reviewing movies since before he got kicked off of his high school radio station for panning The Towering Inferno in 1974. He has written the books VideoHound’s Groovy Movies: Far-Out Films of the Psychedelic Era and Filmadelphia: A Celebration of a City’s Movies, and has contributed film reportage and reviews to such outlets as Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, Video Business magazine and National Public Radio.