Film Review: ‘City Of Lies’

by Ben Martin

A little over ago, along with the rest of the world, I went into lockdown/quarantine thanks to COVID-19. Over time, many folks masked up to make their way back out into the world. Some people did so in drips-and-drabs, while others opened the floodgates and got back out there. Then, of course, there were the overly cautious cats such as myself who didn’t leave their abodes until recently, after being fully vaccinated. And even now, I’ve only been dipping my toe in the turbulent waters of the general public. Heck, there are still very few places I care to go just yet, and only one of which I’ve ventured to thus far — my local small movie theater.

As a guy who hadn’t left his apartment in forever and a day, I was more than a little anxious as I entered the theater lobby. I could feel myself breathing a bit hard through my mask; while my heart thumped out of my chest like that little rabbit from Bambi (1942) as I went up to the concession counter and purchased my ticket.

The movie that had gotten enough attention to get me back in the movie theater was the long-delayed City of Lies, which was initially slated for release back in September of 2018. The film was shelved by its original distributor, Warner Bros., amidst star Johnny Depp‘s myriad of ongoing legal issues. (One of which the actor allegedly perpetrated on the set of the movie in review.) Eventually, WB put City of Lies in turnaround, at which point Saban Films purchased the film for distribution. But, fate had other plans as the film was yet again delayed, this time by the coronavirus.

Finally, though, City of Lies saw its theatrical release, and after discreetly disinfecting my seat with a travel-sized can of Lysol, I sat down to take it all in. As I sat alone in the dark peace-and-quiet only a movie theater can provide, I hoped that I could ignore the reoccurring fogging up of my glasses from the mask to concentrate on the picture. Much to my relief, City of Lies proves just interesting enough to let me do that. Based on author Randall Sullivan’s 2002 non-fiction book, LAbyrinth, City of Lies tells a story of true crime and corruption:

On September 13, 1996, Tupac Shakur (1971-1996) was slain in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas. Mere months later, on March 9, 1997, Christopher “The Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace (1972–1997) was shot to death in Los Angeles. Following these murders, seasoned LAPD homicide detective Russell Poole (Depp) is tasked with investigating the killings of these iconic rappers. In performing his investigation, Poole concludes that this case has direct ties to the very police department within which he swore to protect, serve, and uphold the law. Eventually, the good detective’s drummed out of the LAPD due to his persistence in pursuing his theory. A few years later, journalist Jack Jackson (Forest Whitaker) approaches the disgraced detective to get his whole side of the double murder case as the film moves back-and-forth in time to unpack it all.

In watching the trailers and TV spots for the movie in review, I was on the fence about going to see it in the theater (the recent digital release was delayed) because, frankly, they made the movie look like a cheap potboiler; both from a cinematography standpoint and how the film was marketed. Ultimately, though, my interest in the subject matter and curiosity as to if this would be Depp’s final theatrical release (at least for a while) got my butt in that Lysoled seat. Thankfully, the film’s marketing proved to be just that as City of Lies is a little more elevated than one would be led to believe.

Admittedly, being misled by the marketing and doubting the craft that would be displayed in the finished film is on me. Frankly, after seeing most of director Brad Furman‘s (The Lincoln LawyerRunner Runner, The Infiltrator) filmography, most of which is in the Crime genre, I should have known better. As with his previous pictures, Furman brings his appropriately gritty style to City of Lies. In collaboration with cinematographer Monika Lenczewska (Park), Furman brings a visual tone and style to this film that captures the sunbaked, dangerous streets of L.A. None of the glitz and glamour of Tinseltown will be found here. Instead, the titular City of Lies is so palpable that it immediately pulled me into the movie.

Unfortunately, though, the allure of this true-crime case and its environment starts to run low on gas about halfway through the movie’s runtime. That said, the majority of it is well worth watching. Whitaker brings his total effort and passion to the role, as we’ve come to expect. Then there’s Depp, who gives a performance that I can only describe as a mixed bag. On the one hand, perhaps the actor is portraying his deceased real-life counterpart accurately. After all, Poole was undoubtedly determined to solve this (still unresolved) case but was also worn down and defeated by the system within which he worked. On the other hand, I can’t help but feel like Depp was merely sleepwalking through this role in an almost distracted fashion. 

In the end, City of Lies fittingly feels a lot like life. There will always be ambiguity and unresolved issues, and we may leave this world feeling unsatisfied. While the film leaving me with such feelings is appropriate considering it’s based on a true crime case, it’s also the reason I can only recommend it to a narrow audience. If like me, you’re interested in this case, then this cinematic take on the aftermath is worth watching. At the same time, you aren’t going to find much here that you wouldn’t find in numerous documentaries. Alternatively, if you’re a fan of this cast, City of Lies would be worth a watch in the comfort of your own home. For as much as I enjoyed finally being back in a movie theater (occasional anxiety and paranoia aside), this movie does not demand that environment.

City of Lies is currently playing in theaters & is available for purchase or rental on streaming.


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