April 4, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Brad Furman
Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the dramatic film “City of Lies” features a racially diverse cast of characters (white, African American and a few Latinos) representing middle-class citizens, law enforcement and the criminal underground.
Culture Clash: A bitter former Los Angeles police detective joins forces with a TV journalist to try to solve the 1997 murder of rapper The Notorious B.I.G., also known as Biggie Smalls.
Culture Audience: “City of Lies” will appeal primarily to people interested in the Notorious B.I.G. murder case or movies about true crime, but the movie drags with a sluggish pace and mediocre performances.
The life and murder of The Notorious B.I.G., also known as Biggie Smalls, has turned into a cottage industry for filmmakers, since there have been several documentaries and narrative feature films about the rapper, who was murdered in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles on March 9, 1997. The same could be said of the numerous movies about rapper Tupac Shakur, who died in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas on September 13, 1996. Both murders are speculated to be linked to each other, and these two murder cases remain unsolved. The dramatic film “City of Lies” (directed by Brad Furman) focuses on the Biggie Smalls murder case in such a lukewarm and unremarkable way that people will be better off watching any of the several documentaries about the same subject.
The troubled behind-the-scenes story of “City of Lies” is actually more interesting than the movie itself. “City of Lies” was originally supposed to be released in 2018, but the movie’s release was abruptly cancelled by then-distributor Global Road Entertainment, formerly known as Open Road Films. The company was sued by Bank Leumi, which loaned $32 million to make the movie and wanted the money back since the movie’s release was cancelled. In a separate lawsuit, “City of Lies” star Johnny Depp was sued by the movie’s former location manager Gregg “Rocky” Brooks, who claimed that Depp assaulted him on the set of “City of Lies.”
Global Road filed for bankruptcy in 2018, thereby shielding the company from debt collectors. The lawsuit against Depp was presumably settled out of court, because it never went to trial. Open Road Films was revived in 2019 under new ownership. Meanwhile, “City of Lies” was shelved until Saban Films purchased the rights to the movie and released the movie in 2021.
It’s easy to see why “City of Lies” wasn’t considered a priority release by its original distributors. It isn’t a terrible film, but it’s a terribly monotonous one, with lackluster acting and tacky re-enactments of over-recycled theories about Biggie Smalls’ murder. “City of Lies” throws in some unnecessary fictional characters to bring more drama to the story. Christian Contreras wrote the “City of Lies” screenplay, which is based on Randall Sullivan’s 2002 non-fiction book “LAbryinth.”
The movie, just like the book, takes the angle that former Los Angeles Police Department detective Russell Poole (played by Depp) had the most plausible theory that Smalls was murdered by corrupt LAPD cops who were working as off-duty security for Marion “Suge” Knight, the founder of Death Row Records. Knight and Death Row (which was the Los Angeles-based record label that Shakur was signed to when he was murdered) were involved in a bitter East Coast vs. West Coast rivalry with Sean Combs, the founder of the New York City-based Bad Boy Entertainment. The Notorious B.I.G. (a Brooklyn, New York native whose real name was Christopher Wallace) was signed to Bad Boy. The media often made it look like The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur were enemies, when the two rappers actually were friends early on in their careers until their record label bosses started feuding with each other.
“City of Lies” opens with a scene that takes place on March 18, 1997, in North Hollywood, California. An undercover LAPD cop named Frank Lyga (played by Shea Whigham) gets into a road-rage incident with a guy in a SUV over the type of music that is loudly playing in the SUV while both are stopped next to each other at a traffic light. There are racial undertones in their argument because Lyga is white and the other driver is African American.
The SUV driver starts to threaten Frank and chase after him in the car. During this car chase, Lyga shoots and kills the other motorist, who crashes his SUV into another car. It turns out that the other driver was also an undercover LAPD cop. His name was Kevin Gaines (played by Amin Joseph), and his alleged connection to the Biggie Smalls murder case is explained later in the movie for people who don’t know already.
Poole is called to the scene of Gaines’ death. Lyga claims he killed Gaines in self-defense. But in the wake of the 1992 riots over the Rodney King trial verdict, the LAPD does not want a repeat of these riots. Gaines’ family files a $25 million wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles. This lawsuit might or might not have affected how the LAPD investigated Gaines’ alleged involvement in the Biggie Smalls murder.
It’s not the best way to start off “City of Lies,” which is mostly about how retired LAPD detective Poole teamed up with a TV news journalist named Darius “Jack” Jackson (played by Forest Whitaker) in 2015 to re-examine the Biggie Smalls murder case. Poole left the LAPD in 1999 to start his own private detective agency, where he continued to investigate the Biggie Smalls murder. Although most of the characters in “City of Lies” are based on real people and the characters keep the names of their real-life counterparts, Jackson is a fictional character who works for the fictional American World Network, which is supposed to be like CNN.
Jackson is a character fabricated for this movie so that he can be a sounding board for Poole’s theories and to do a lot of the legwork of investigating that Poole might not be able to do because of Poole’s alienation from the LAPD. Jackson seeks out Poole at Poole’s cluttered and dingy apartment/home office because Jackson is doing a retrospective special on the Notorious B.I.G. and he wants to possibly interview Poole for it. When Jackson arrives unannounced at Poole’s apartment, he finds the door unlocked and enters. The unlocked door is a small detail that doesn’t ring true, considering that the movie goes out its way throughout the story to show how paranoid Poole is.
Poole surprises Jackson by pulling a gun on him. It didn’t help that Jackson showed up unannounced. After the former cop sees that Jackson isn’t a threat, Jackson explains why he’s there and reminds Poole that he actually interviewed Poole years before, for a documentary called “East vs. West,” about the 1990s East Coast/West Coast rap rivalry. Jackson proudly mentions that the documentary won a Peabody Award, but Poole isn’t impressed.
Poole, who is divorced and lives by himself, has his apartment walls covered in clippings and other items related to Biggie Smalls and the unsolved murder. In conversations with Jackson, it becomes very apparent that Poole has been so obsessed with the case, it’s cost him his job at the LAPD (he quit under a cloud of discontent after being suspended) and he lost his family over it. Poole’s wife divorced him, and he is estranged from his son Russell Poole Jr. (played by Joshua M. Hardwick), who is a minor league baseball player.
Sure enough, this hackneyed movie has a subplot of Poole pining for his lost relationship with his son. There’s a scene of him watching Russell Jr. during baseball practice, but keeping his distance because there’s too much bad blood between them. Jackson is with Poole as they watch Russell Jr. in the stands.
There are also a few flashbacks to Poole and his son in happier times when Russell Jr. was a 6-year-old child (played by Antonio Raul Corbo) and they did father-son activities, such as fishing. Poole also has an adult daughter (played by Ashleigh Biller), who isn’t even given a name in the movie. Meanwhile, the movie never shows anything about Jackson’s home life.
“City of Lies” goes back and forth between showing how Poole was on the original LAPD investigation team in the Biggie Smalls murder case in 1997, and how he’s still investigating the case as an under-funded private detective in 2015. Poole was also part of the internal affairs investigation over the 1997 shooting death of LAPD police officer Gaines by fellow LAPD cop Lyga. “City of Lies” references the LAPD Ramparts scandal, which involved some of the same cops who were connected to the Biggie Smalls murder. One of those cops was Rafael Pérez (played by Neil Brown Jr.), who was accused of being a member of the Bloods, a gang affiliated with Death Row founder Knight.
Other LAPD characters in the story who worked on the Biggie Smalls murder case in the late 1990s include Detective Fred Miller (played by Toby Huss), who was Russell’s closest co-worker on the case, and Detective Varney (played by Michael Paré), who gets scolded by Miller for saying that Biggie Smalls was behind Tupac Shakur’s murder. Other law enforcement officials who are part of the story include City Attorney Stone (played by Louis Herthum) and FBI Agent Dunton (played by Laurence Mason), who is undercover as a street thug connected to Death Row chief Knight. The movie is a bit heavy-handed in depicting Poole as the only LAPD cop willing to take down some of his colleagues if he thought they were murderers in cases that he was investigating.
In 2015, the LAPD cops that Jackson has to deal with include Commander Fasulo (played by Peter Greene) and Lieutenant O’Shea (played by Dayton Callie). These cops have written off Poole as a crazy loose cannon. However, Jackson isn’t so sure, and he begins to believe that Poole could be right about the LAPD being involved in some kind of cover-up to protect corrupt cops who might have been involved in the murder.
If you believe the main theory presented in the movie, a rogue LAPD cop named David Mack, nicknamed D-Mack (played by Shamier Anderson), was one of the key people with direct knowledge of the Biggie Smalls murder. Mack’s involvement is a theory that has already been widely reported, but it won’t be revealed in this review, since some people watching the movie might not know the theory. In real life, Mack was arrested and sentenced to 14 years in prison for a December 1997 bank robbery of $722,000 in Los Angeles. The bank robbery is re-enacted in the movie.
Just as Poole ran into problems with his superiors for believing that the Biggie Smalls murder was a conspiracy among corrupt LAPD cops working for Knight, so too does Jackson get pushback from his boss named Edwards (played by Xander Berkeley) because Jackson wants to present this theory in the TV special. Jackson getting stonewalled by his boss is somewhat of an unbelievable part of the movie, because this theory was widely reported long before 2015, so Jackson really wouldn’t be reporting anything new. In the world of “City of Lies,” viewers are supposed to forget all of that and believe that Jackson will be breaking this news on TV for the very first time.
“City of Lies” includes cheesy re-enactments (some parts in slow-motion) of the Biggie Smalls murder, which happened after he left a Soul Train Music Awards after-party at the Petersen Automotive Museum. He was a passenger in a SUV that was at a stoplight when he was shot by someone in a car that pulled up to the SUV. The role of Biggie Smalls is played by Jamal Woolard, who’s played the rapper in multiple films, including the 2009 biopic “Notorious.” An eyewitness named Tyrell (played by Dominique Columbus), a character fabricated for the movie, is interviewed in 1997 flashback scenes.
And just so the audience knows that “City of Lies” was approved by the family of Biggie Smalls/Christopher Wallace, his mother Voletta Wallace (portraying herself) has a cameo in a scene where she meets with Poole and Jackson in a diner. She thanks Poole and Jackson for clearing her son’s name when there were rumors that The Notorious B.I.G. was involved in the murder of Tupac Shakur. The only purpose of this scene is so people see that Voletta Wallace considered Poole to be an ally when it came to investigating the murder of Biggie Smalls.
“City of Lies” is very much told from Poole’s perspective, because the flow of the movie is frequently interrupted by his voiceover narration where he spouts some hokey lines. After the opening scene where Poole is called to the scene of LAPD officer Gaines’ death, Poole says in a voiceover about Gaines’ death and Biggie Smalls’ death: “I didn’t connect the two at first, but when I did, I lost everything that mattered. That day, on that street corner, the labyrinth opened.”
Later in the movie, Poole says in retrospect of how the LAPD was investigating Gaines’ death: “The ghost of Rodney King was still haunting the city, so there was only one way this was going to end. I was the only idiot to think otherwise.” When Poole and Jackson meet in Poole’s apartment for the first time, Jackson asks Poole directly: “Who shot Christopher Wallace?” Poole replies: “I don’t know. I had a theory, and my investigation was ripped out from under me.”
You get the idea. “City of Lies” is about portraying Poole as a noble but very flawed martyr for his theory. The problem is in the the way it’s presented in “City of Lies,” which oversimplifies things and makes it look like Poole is the only person who had this theory and the only one to uncover key evidence in this theory. But by his own admission, what he uncovered wasn’t enough to solve the murder.
By the time Jackson meets Poole in Poole’s apartment, the former cop is jaded and distrustful, but Jackson’s interest in the case seems to renew Poole’s spirit and he gradually learns to trust Jackson. But the movie also spends a lot of time on flashbacks of Poole working on the case in 1997, and Jackson retracing Poole’s investigative steps instead of trying to look at other theories too. It’s lazy journalism that shouldn’t be glorified in a movie.
Depp and Whitaker have a lot of talent in other films. Unfortunately, they aren’t very interesting together in “City of of Lies.” The direction of the movie makes everything look fake. The actors playing cops look like actors, not cops.
And some of the re-creations of people in the rap music industry look awkward, as if these scenes were created by people who only know about hip-hop culture from watching music videos. When the release of “City of Lies” was originally cancelled in 2018, movie audiences didn’t seem to know or care that much. And now that “City of Lies” is available, it’s easy to see why this movie is so inconsequential and forgettable.
Saban Films released “City of Lies” in select U.S. cinemas on March 19, 2021. The movie’s release date on digital and VOD is April 9, 2021.