‘City of Lies’ Finds Johnny Depp on a Trail of Police Corruption Surrounding the Murder of Notorious B.I.G.

City of Lies” builds plenty of intrigue around the 1997 murder of rap icon Christopher Wallace aka Notorious B.I.G., and that’s as far as it goes. It’s a dramatic recap of all the clues and dark questions surrounding the case, using as its subject a real-life personality. Russell Poole was a former LAPD detective who quit the force after the notorious Ramparts scandal, where over 70 Los Angeles cops were linked to major corruption. But for those immersed in the whole Wallace story, Poole, who died in 2015, is the detective who was certain he had solved the crime. Maybe he did and thus his journey should have made for a better movie.

The movie opens with the now standard overview of the rise of gangsta rap in the ‘90s and the subsequent feud between “West Coast” and “East Coast” factions, represented by Tupac Shakur in California and Wallace in New York City. Shakur was gunned down in Las Vegas in late 1996 and Wallace was killed while riding towards Wilshire Blvd on March 9, 1997 in Los Angeles. Poole (Johnny Depp) gets involved a few weeks later when he arrives at the scene of another, odd shooting. During a moment of road rage, an undercover cop, Frank Lyga (Shea Whigham) has shot down Kevin Gaines (Amin Joseph), who turns out to also be LAPD. It is this incident that initiates Poole’s digging into a shocking network of corruption within the department, exposing officers working on the side for Death Row Records and its mafia-like owner Suge Knight. Years later, journalist Jack Jackson (Forest Whitaker), is writing a retrospective on the Wallace murder and contacts Poole, hoping to delve into what he uncovered.

It has taken three years for “City of Lies” to finally premiere in the U.S., after numerous delays and, for whatever reason, a limited release in Italy. Director Brad Furman and writer Christian Contreras attempt to take on the task of finding a cinematic story beneath a mountain of speculations, dark guesses and scattered evidence.  Their main source is the book “LAbyrinth” by Randall Sullivan, who we can assume inspired the fictional character of Jack Jackson. Sullivan wrote his take on the Wallace and Shakur killings after extensively interviewing Poole. It’s undeniably fascinating and Poole’s story has been used to greater effect in documentaries like Nick Broomfield’s “Biggie & Tupac,” where Poole appears urgently sharing his theories. “City of Lies” might just send viewers to Broomfield’s documentary or Sullivan’s book, since it feels as if it is only covering the surface of many things, even in its characters. A 2018 USA limited series, “Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and Notorious B.I.G.” did a better job of covering more of this material in-depth, even if it also struggled to figure out how to assemble it into a lean narrative. 

For the diehard B.I.G. or Shakur obsessive, much of the first half hour plays like a recap of basic information about the Wallace killing. It’s all here in glossy re-creations: Wallace and his entourage getting into their ride on that fateful night and the mysterious way it all seemed so coordinated, including the perfection with which the assassin’s vehicle pulled up to his side. There’s the shooter in a bowtie and the LAPD cops who were working for Death Row, which the FBI was keeping a close eye on. But Furman struggles with the same challenges others have faced with this tale. Because there’s just not much to go on with the Wallace angle, since we truly know little, the real story here would be Poole and the Ramparts scandal. Played by a rather placid Johnny Depp, who looks more bored than driven, Poole remains a distant mystery for the whole movie. He recites a lot of information for Jackson, but we never get a sense of who this man is. Information that should be part of the drama is merely sounded off, like his estranged son who refuses to talk to him, or how obsessing over the Wallace murder caused him to lose his family. None of this is ever properly used. Endless scenes find him sitting at home or at diners with Jackson, saying what should instead be shown. 

There’s a whole swirl of intriguing characters who gained notoriety from the ‘90s expose of the LAPD that took place, like officer David Mack (played with great menace by Shamier Anderson), who robs a bank and tells his interrogators he’s a Piru Blood gang member. Poole takes down drug-running cop Rafael Perez (Neil Brown Jr.). Are both these men connected to the Wallace shooting? Sure, maybe. An undercover officer tells Poole Suge Knight wanted Wallace dead, while another snitch swears the Death Row head arranged the killing. But “City of Lies” never offers its own, clear idea of what happened. It’s never like those early JFK assassination movies like “Executive Action,” where an idea of what the conspiracy entailed is laid out. Part of the problem is that the suspects also dissolve and are never fleshed out. We see Suge Knight, puffing a cigar in the same concert sequences once or twice, but as a villain he’s nonexistent. This is a movie that assumes you have already read the books or watched the documentaries before going in. What we’re left with is the movie equivalent of lots of whispering.

As a filmmaker Furman does have a sense of style and visually the movie has grit. What’s missing is a sense of feverish urgency to share through drama Poole’s descent into a labyrinth of corruption, finally leading to a disturbingly clear idea of how Wallace was killed and why. Instead we just get two established actors hanging out for 112 minutes discussing the facts of the case. “City of Lies” does not solve the murder of the Notorious B.I.G., it simply restates what is already known and suspected. Per Russell Poole, he risked his career and safety to dig into both LAPD corruption and a famous killing, the movie should have been no less risky. 

City of Lies” releases March 19 in select theaters and April 9 in VOD.