Producers: Miriam Segal, Paul Brennan and Stuart Manashil Director: Brad Furman Screenplay: Christian Contreras Cast: Johnny Depp, Forest Whitaker, Shea Whigham, Toby Huss, Shamier Anderson, Dayton Callie, Neil Brown Jr., Xander Berkeley, Glenn Plummer, Rockmund Dunbar, Kevin Chapman, Amin Joseph, Michael Paré, Peter Greene, Obba Babatundé and Voletta Wallace Distributor: Saban Films
The 1997 killing of Christopher Wallace, aka the Notorious B.I.G., on a Los Angeles Street officially remains unsolved, but writer Randall Sullivan offered a solution in his 2003 book “LAbyrinth.” That in turn provides the basis for Christian Contreras’ script for Brad Furman’s structurally complex but, in the final analysis, unsurprising film, which was shot in 2016-2017 and originally scheduled for 2018 release until it was pulled as a result of legal problems.
No one who has seen Nick Broomfield’s incendiary documentary “Biggie & Tupac” will find the fundamental argument made here new. The premise, which Broomfield developed from interviews with ex-L.APD detective Russell Poole, is that the killings of both Tupac Shakur in 1996 and Wallace the following year were plotted by Suge Knight, the head of Death Row Records. That’s the assumption of Sullivan’s book, but it, and “City of Lies,” are less concerned with the why of it—the motives behind the murders—but the how of Biggie’s ambush, which is alleged to have been made possible by a culture of corruption within the LAPD (exemplified in the Rampart scandal of the late nineties), and then suppressed in order to save the department—and the city—from the potentially huge monetary risks that could result from legal action by Wallace’s family.
The hero of the piece is Poole (played by Johnny Depp), portrayed as the rare honest cop whose attempts to solve the case are stymied by his superiors. His story comes out in shards of flashback as he’s interviewed by “Jack” Jackson (Forrest Whitaker), a reporter assigned to do a twenty-years-later piece on the two murders—who’s, in effect, a Sullivan surrogate.
Poole’s initial interest in the case, we learn, came about indirectly, when he was charged with investigating a strange road-rage incident in which Kevin Gaines (Amin Joseph), a member of the CRASH task force, was shot and killed by undercover detective Frank Lyga (Shea Whigham) only days after Wallace’s murder. Gaines proved to have ties to Death Row Records and to endemic corruption within the LAPD. Further evidence of that corruption followed with the arrest of two other CRASH officers David Mack (Shamier Anderson) for a November, 1997 bank robbery, and Rafael Pérez (Neil Brown Jr.) in August, 1998, for theft and resale of cocaine from the police evidence room. When Pérez became an informant, the Rampart scandal erupted.
According to the film, Poole was at the center of all these events, and they led him to develop his theory that Mack and Pérez were part of the conspiracy to kill Wallace, though the actual shooter was a fellow named Harry Billups, aka Amir Muhammed. And when he was ordered to drop his investigation in 1999, he resigned from the force, brooding over the injustice forever after and earning the friendship of Wallace’s mother Voletta (playing herself in a single scene), who admired his unwavering devotion to making the truth known. (Poole died in 2015.)
As the above suggests, there’s a substantial amount of information to be conveyed here, and Contreras does a reasonably good job of including most of it, though he fudges with the facts occasionally for dramatic effect (as in the arrest of Pérez).
It’s made rather more difficult to deal with, however—unless one already knows a good deal about the case—by the decision of Furman and his behind-the-camera collaborators Monika Lenczewska (cinematography) and Leo Trombetta (editing) to stage the more active sequences in a fidgety, frantic style and present everything as a procedural puzzle as Poole doles out details to Jackson and Jackson goes off on his own to confirm them. The goal is to create suspense and tension, but it’s just as likely to sow confusion.
Nonetheless Depp gives a good performance, both as the young, eager Poole and the older, world-weary one, and though Whitaker’s character is never clearly defined, he puts a lot of effort into giving it some shading. Among the large supporting cast, Whigham, Anderson, Joseph and Sander Berkeley, as Poole’s untrustworthy boss, stand out. Clay Griffith’s production design and Chris Hajian’s score are adequate.
“City of Lies” wants to shock and provoke, but even in 2018 it would have been rather behind the times. It might prove intriguing for both those with an enduring interest in the Notorious B.I.G.’s murder and those who know little about it, but also frustrating—though for different reasons.