Review: Johnny Depp, Forest Whitaker probe 2Pac, Biggie murders in ‘City of Lies’

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'City of Lies'

In 1996 and 1997, the East vs. West Coast rap battle between Bad Boy Records and Death Row Records culminated in the murders of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G.

The investigation is chronicled in “City of Lies,” which was slated for a U.S. release in Sept. 2018 by Global Road Entertainment before being acquired by Saban Films. It was released theatrically March 19, 2021, but due to the pandemic, most folks haven’t been able to see it until now, finally streaming for $6.99 on Video on Demand this past week.

Based on Randall Sullivan’s non-fiction book “LAbyrinth” (2002), the story follows a hungry journalist named Jackson (Forest Whitaker), who is writing an expose on the anniversary of the rappers’ killings. He tracks down former Los Angeles Police Department detective Russell Poole (Johnny Depp), who devoted his entire life to solving the complex case.

It may be hard for folks to watch Depp, who was recently accused of domestic violence. There’s even a line in the film saying, “Anyone who hits a woman is an animal.” However, objective critics can at least say that Depp transforms into the role as a believable recluse, having alienated his own family by obsessing over a case he couldn’t solve.

It’s unique seeing Depp and Whitaker reunite after “Platoon” (1986). Whitaker gives a fine performance, but one that deserves more screen time. As written, the role is slightly more than a framing device but slightly less than a fleshed-out character, leaving Whitaker in limbo as we spend so much time with Depp and the flashbacks of the bloody events.

For the most part, Christian Contreras’ script is an engaging police procedural with all the suspect boards and pushback by nervous superiors. However, there isn’t much backstory of the rappers, so you may want to rewatch “Notorious” (2009) or “All Eyez on Me” (2017) to refresh yourself on their lives, as well as the documentary “Tupac: Resurrection” (2003).

Thematically, the script rebrands L.A. from a “City of Angels” or “City of Stars” to a cynical “City of Lies.” Like the masterpiece “Chinatown” (1974), it suggests that the people in power are all corrupt, showing the Los Angeles Police Department in bed with Death Row Records, complicit in Biggie’s murder, and redacting pages of documents to cover it up.

It’s all set in the divisive aftermath of the O.J. Simpson trial. Like TV’s “The People vs. O.J. Simpson” (2016), the film suggests that lawyer Johnnie Cochran used legit racial concerns over Rodney King to wrongly acquit a killer. A character even says, “F*** Mark Fuhrman,” referring to the LAPD’s infamous racist remarks (no relation to director Brad Furman).

In a very poignant touch, Furman casts Biggie’s actual mother, Voletta Wallace, who wears real emotion on her sleeve in her decades-long search to find her son’s killers. We see her frustration that she can’t access the case files because the LAPD has “reopened” the investigation, which she believes is merely an excuse to keep the documents sealed.

Obviously, audiences won’t get closure because the case remains unsolved. While some mysteries reveal the killer (“Se7en”), others strongly suggest a culprit even if it’s not provable (“Zodiac”). “City of Lies” is more of the latter, but less effective as it’s unsure how to wrap, featuring a jarring cut-to-black between subplot scenes of baseball games.

While the third act lacks oomph, fans of the rappers with prior of the knowledge of the case (like myself) will appreciate the journey. Those who aren’t fans or who lack prior knowledge of the case may want to pass. Either way, the flawed film lands its message of a corrupt police force where political self-preservation sadly overshadows the actual lives lost.

3 stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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