The long-delayed City of Lies is a worthy entry in the cannon of Biggie Smalls-lore

By: Steve Pulaski

Brad Furman’s City of Lies begins in a way that immediately grabs your attention, partly because of its tension, partly because it reflects the society in which we presently live. It’s 1997 and an act of road rage ensues between a white man with a mullet (Shea Whigham) and a Black man (Amin Joseph) blasting rap music at a red light. Words are exchanged, a chase occurs, and it ends with shots fired, leaving the Black man dead. The white man who shot him holds up a badge when police arrive on the scene, informing them he’s a police officer named Frank Lyga. The man he just shot? Also a cop, named Kevin Gaines.

That’s when LAPD detective Russell Poole (Johnny Depp) enters the picturing, informing us that the shooting took place eight miles from where Christopher Wallace (better known as The Notorious B.I.G.) had been gunned down merely nine days prior. “That day on that street corner,” Poole states in a voiceover, “the first door to the labyrinth opened.” Lyga had been working as an undercover cop for many years, while Gaines — also a member of the LAPD — had done security work for Suge Knight, the cutthroat head of the infamous Death Row Records label. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

The framework of City of Lies revolves around a squirrely journalist named Jack Jackson (Forest Whitaker) combing Poole for information 18 years later. Jackson simply wants to know who actually shot Biggie Smalls. Like his contemporary Tupac Shakur, who was gunned down in Las Vegas just six months before B.I.G., Wallace’s murder remains unsolved. “A murder like that only goes unsolved if the police don’t want to solve it,” Poole later insists. This is why the lore around Biggie and Tupac’s death lingers about as prevalently as both of their musical catalogs. Both were murdered in plain sight, in crowded intersections with numerous security cameras and witnesses. Yet the police are no closer to solving the crimes than they were when both occurred.

Poole tells Jackson that he began to establish connections between corrupt LAPD officers and the shootings of both Shakur and Wallace. That’s when he began getting strong-armed by his superior officers — this all happenings a couple years after the Rodney King incident and the O.J. Simpson trial, which left the Los Angeles Police Department battered. In the process of diving deep into the rabbit hole of the murders, Poole has squandered everything from his marriage to his relationship with his kid. We can tell his obsession is still strong as his apartment is obligatorily littered with Polaroids, newspaper clippings, and paraphernalia related to both rappers’ deaths.

The story itself is based on Randall Sullivan’s book; the full title, LAbyrinth: A Detective Investigates the Murders of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., the Implication of Death Row Records’ Suge Knight, and the Origins of the Los Angeles Police Scandal, being longer than a lifespan. The film itself is a treat for many reasons. For one, Depp gives his most understated performance in at least a decade, maybe two. I forgot what a measured Depp looks like, but he’s extremely effective, even lightly nostalgic, resembling classic TV cops of the 1970s. Whitaker is your classic journalist who can’t hide his passion for the case itself. The duo click when they’re both on-screen, exchanging theories and assumptions.

This is a dense, labyrinth-like story, but it’s distilled clearly, in immersive fashion, by writer Christian Contreras. Conducted like a 70s cop procedural, ala Serpico, it draws you into the mystery by way of piecemeal evidence with a devotion to the investigative process. Meanwhile, the towering, iconic figure that is The Notorious B.I.G. and his shadow hover over the picture. There’s a delightfully idiosyncratic moment following an argument between Poole and Jackson that leads to Jackson storming out of the room and getting pulled over by police as “Big Poppa” thumps in the background. Furthermore, handheld videography and washed-out colors add to the cinematic flare, giving it a docudrama presentation that finds some style beyond what could’ve appeared to be a Law & Order episode.

Even Wallace’s real-life mother, Violetta, plays herself and nails her key-scene that expresses decades of unhealed trauma and angst over the death of her son.

City of Lies‘ most evident sin is not nailing down a theme. It’s a murder mystery, a cop-drama, an investigation into police corruption, and a commentary on the unequal treatment between Blacks and law enforcement. The redeeming quality is it doesn’t mishandle any, it just doesn’t handle the latter two well enough to drive the message home.

City of Lies was originally supposed to be released in theaters in the fall of 2018, but was mysteriously taken off the schedule. Reportedly, Depp got into a physical altercation with the film’s location manager and a lawsuit contributed to its delay. Color me conspiratorial, but I simply don’t buy that cockamamie justification. That incident may have played a role, but I highly doubt it would’ve resulted in a three-year delay. I have a very hard time believing the LAPD didn’t put some kind of pressure on Miramax to smother the release of the film. We’ll likely never know who pulled the trigger and ended the lives of Shakur and Wallace at such a tender age, but at the least, we’re starting to learn the why behind all the unknowing.

NOTE: City of Lies is now available to rent on multiple streaming platforms.

Grade: B+

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