City of Lies

By every measure, Tupac Shakur and Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace were two of the most talented and influential rap artists ever. Both were gunned down in their prime, within a short time of one another. Rumors abounded as to what might have driven the murders, with an East Coast/West Coast rivalry often cited as a likely contributor. City of Lies dives deeper, portraying the theory advanced by a detective that damned the entire LAPD.

Johnny Depp plays that detective, Russell Poole. When we first meet him, it's eighteen years after the murder and he's left the force in disgrace. One afternoon, Poole receives a visit from journalist Jack Jackson (Forest Whitaker). He, too, has been disgraced, having won a Peabody award for a report on the Wallace murder that turned out later to be factually inaccurate. Jackson is still obsessed with getting to the truth, so teaming up with the equally-obsessed Poole seems like a good idea.

Much of City of Lies is told in flashback, as Poole relates the ups and downs of his investigation. It begins with him looking into a situation in which a white cop (Shea Wigham) shoots a black cop who turns out to be connected to Death Row Records, the company run by Suge Knight, a legit businessman on the surface but a known gangster underneath. I won't get into the specifics of Poole's case – learning them is where the suspense comes from – although he quickly surmises that Knight has a sizable chunk of the LAPD on his payroll, and one of its members may have pulled the trigger on Wallace. Just as quickly, he learns that the police department has every reason to want to cover that fact up.

Information comes quickly in the movie. Director Brad Furman (The Infiltrator) and screenwriter Christian Contreras (adapting Randall Sullivan's book Labyrinth) do a good job keeping everything relatively easy to follow. They repeat names or flash images of characters onscreen during discussions so the audience can keep all the players straight.

Even better is how the film unfolds its central idea, which is that the LAPD was coming off the Rodney King verdict, in which no cops were charged in his beating, and the O.J. Simpson verdict, in which the cops who did their jobs were made to look bad by the defendant's win. Wary of those things, they had a strong investment in keeping their members from being too closely associated with the Biggie/Tupac murders. A too-public connection would have tarnished their reputation even further. Whether or not you agree with any of this, City of Lies is appealingly provocative in laying it out.

Seeing Johnny Depp performing with subtlety again is a treat. He gives none of the outrageous flourishes to Poole that have become his stock in trade lately. Instead, he paints a portrait of a man consumed with the murder he couldn't solve and the possibility that the LAPD discredited him to save themselves. Whitaker is equally good as the curious Jackson. Through his work, we sense that this man has deep regret about having put together an incorrect report and now seeks to make amends. There's a fantastic scene in which he meets Wallace's mother Voletta (playing herself); Whitaker brings a lot of emotion to it.

Less successful are scenes involving Poole's estrangement from his baseball player son. Because that character is never developed, his father's guilt doesn't register as strongly as it could have. Clearly, it's an effort to show that the detective becoming consumed by the case has negatively affected his personal life, yet it just gets in the way of what we really care about.

City of Lies reminded me of one of my favorite movies, Oliver Stone's JFK. Both are about a real man whose conspiracy theory led him to be ostracized, and both – through the careful laying out of a possible explanation – ask us to consider that he may have been right. Of course, JFK is a classic. City of Lies doesn't hit those same highs, yet it's still a spellbinding drama that suggests massive abuses of power in the name of self-protection.

out of four

City of Lies is rated R for language throughout, some violence and drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 52 minutes.