Movies based on true events can be terrific or they can veer off track and end up not very good. City of Lies is a bit of a mixed bag. The idea of this film is fascinating even though I’m not a fan of rap music. The world that rappers exist in is an interesting one. They sing about drugs, crime, and violence in the urban neighborhoods they come from. This makes their lives interesting from that aspect. The overall selection of this story is the problem, not the people it tries to depict in it.
Russell Poole (Johnny Depp) is a Los Angeles Police Detective. He has spent two decades trying to solve the deaths of The Notorious B.I.G and Tupac Shakur. He has been met head-on by his superiors at every turn he takes. Not until an eager reporter, Jack Jackson (Forest Whitaker), who’s looking to make a name for himself, comes sniffing around does this story get any traction. He wants to know why these murders haven’t been solved and who’s to blame for the ineptitude.
The film has archival footage of Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. It shows all the angles within this case. So why do the police department and lawyers involved keep creating so much red tape? That’s the question Poole and Jackson have to answer. Alongside Depp and Whitaker are a great group of character actors portraying all the men involved in this coverup. Among them are Shea Whigham, Toby Haas, Xander Berkley, and Dayton Callie.
Good films about the investigation should be able to draw the viewer in and let them engage with the story. The deaths of these two rap icons is that story. The investigation and reporting of this story are convoluted though. This film goes in so many different directions it’s hard to tell up from down. It has a time-lapse aspect of it where Depp’s character is, in the end, working on a case, then it goes back to the present in the film to show Poole and Jackson investigating it. That’s on top of archival footage. It’s a bit all over the place.
This film should have been put out into theaters, but it has been mired in controversy, the least of which is Depp’s personal life. The murders were very suspicious in and of themselves. The film is based on the book Labyrinth by Randall Sullivan. That is an apt title because this film is very confusing at times. Brad Furman gives it his best, though. He tried to adapt this book as simply as he could, but the time-jumping and archival footage mixed in made it hard to follow along with.
Stories about real people are fascinating, especially those that died. The investigations are sometimes complex and involving, which translates to good drama on screen. Sometimes the material being adapted is too complex, which makes for a convoluted and confusing film. That’s what we have here. Despite the controversy surrounding the film and Johnny Depp, the acting from him, Whitaker, and the others is quite good. The setting is fine as well. The story just needed some fine-tuning and maybe a few rewrites. Who knows… maybe it shouldn’t have been made into a movie at all?
Dan Skip Allen
Founder/EIC disappointment media