After more than two decades, the murders of Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur remain unsolved. In the 90s, they represented the pinnacle of a musical movement that was lyrically confrontational and defined by LA gang culture. An unprovoked assault on Rodney King in 1991, which saw every officer involved go free, still cast its spectre over Los Angeles six years later. Riots had ensued, whole areas were set on fire and for a time, LA resembled a war zone. Rap music only fanned the flames of these frustrations, providing power through wealth and influence. This Johnny Depp headliner explores the repercussions of that incident in 1997, when these two marquee-sized musical influences were gunned down.
Using flashbacks to jump between time periods, stock footage to add resonance and solid performances from Depp and Forest Whitaker for gravitas, City of Lies is engaging stuff. Our headliner plays Russell Poole, a disgraced LA police detective who accidentally stumbles on evidence linking back to the shooting of Notorious B.I.G. Meanwhile, Whitaker portrays Jack Jackson, a journalist connected in print to the same subject matter.
Despite the sporadic nature of their screen time, City of Lies is a reminder of how good Depp can be in the right role. Padded, paunchy and doggedly determined, he sketches a character short on breaks. Discredited by his peers and undeterred by inherent corruption, Poole is effortlessly embodied. Similarly, this is a trick which Whitaker pulls off with comparable levels of panache.
Jackson is a journalist on his uppers. Afforded notoriety for timing rather than talent, he’s searching for redemption through a retrospective expose. His research brings them together and forms a bridge between fact and fiction flawlessly. Even though Whitaker has the lesser role, his commitment and investment in the character and material is evident. Both actors provide a backbone and believability to the drama, without once resorting to cliché.
Brad Furman, who has The Lincoln Lawyer and The Infiltrator amongst his career highlights, handles directorial duties with ease. City of Lies feels like a docu-drama with elements of fictionalization weaved into the fabric. His melding of fact and fiction through genuine footage and occasional reconstruction ground this police procedural in recognizable territory. As the web of corruption gets wider, he resists an urge to go bigger, and instead remains focused on his two leads, letting them do the work.
For anyone who suspects the subject matter might put them off, think again. Getting audiences up to speed on the background could’ve been tedious. Indeed, City of Lies could’ve turned out to be an exercise in exposition devoid of personality, presence or meaning. Instead, it serves as a snapshot of an era in which the musical landscape collided with cultural change. In so doing, it neither idolizes nor lionizes the musical icons who come through on the soundtrack and in carefully selected archive images.
Similar to Tom McCarthy’s exploration of the Catholic church in Spotlight, the movie plays out like a cautionary tale. It laments human weakness and our desire for influence and power over anything more nurturing. Both in terms of key players within the industry and enforcement officials looking to profit from impunity. This film also possesses parallels inherent to the gold standard of seventies cinema, which is All the President’s Men.
Similar to City of Lies, it deals in high level corruption on a world stage, a transparent desire to profit through deception as well as exoneration for those most culpable. There are mismatched personalities with a shared goal, whilst it’s no exaggeration to suggest comparisons in marquee power between the actors involved. Both films flit back and forth in time using stock footage as their connective tissue, whilst drama is drip fed piecemeal to the audience. However, there is one scene where the two efforts differ on a fundamental level.
Russell Poole and Jack Jackson sit opposite an old lady with soft features, who exudes a world-weary demeanour. This is Voletta Wallace, mother to murder victim Chris Wallace, known globally as Notorious B.I.G., and she changes the dynamic by doing very little. For a moment, you can see Depp drop the character out of respect and Whitaker follow suit. Both men are sitting across from a woman who’s lived what they merely deem to dramatize. Within the fabric of this film, it represents a seamless merging of fact and fiction that cuts through their cinematic façade.
On this evidence, it’s fair to say that Depp deserves his character actor slash movie star status. Eminently watchable, charismatically chaotic and generous during his screen time opposite Whitaker, both men make this movie better. Impassioned, engaging and eloquently constructed, City of Lies has much more to offer than first meets the eye.