‘City of Lies’ Review: Could Johnny Depp Have the Answer to the Notorious B.I.G.’s Murder?

Who shot Christopher Wallace, aka Biggie Smalls? It’s crazy to think that a Hollywood movie can solve a homicide the Los Angeles Police Department couldn’t crack. But conspiracy-minded “City of Lies” — which opens 24 years and 10 days after the rap legend’s murder on March 9, 1997 — suggests that the Notorious B.I.G.’s death isn’t unsolved at all, but a cover-up of epic proportions.

According to buck-the-system screenwriter Christian Contreras (who cooks up lines like “There’s no such thing as law. There’s never been one that can overcome man’s nature”), the LAPD had a pretty good idea of who did it and deliberately chose to let the case go cold. That’s a bombshell if true and downright irresponsible if not — and not this critic’s place to speculate as to which — although one thing is certain: Such claims should make for a far more exciting movie than the one director Brad Furman delivers, a convoluted taupe-tinted chronicle of a 20-year investigation that foments anti-cop distrust and falls back on the LAPD’s seismic Rampart scandal to give it any kind of pulse.

“A murder like that only goes unsolved if the police don’t want to solve it,” asserts Johnny Depp, looking like the Madame Tussaud’s version of himself (between the old-age makeup used in the present and the digital de-aging of the late-’90s scenes). Waxy appearance aside, Depp is convincingly obsessed as Russell Poole, the tenacious LAPD detective who refused to abandon the case, even as his findings implicated the establishment he worked for.

Why would Los Angeles cops be responsible for Biggie’s death, you wonder? Wasn’t his assassination some kind of payback for the shooting of Tupac Shakur six months earlier — a murder that, lest we forget, also remains unsolved?

Forget what you know. In Furman’s hands, this true-crime saga takes on the feel of wild-eyed fiction — this despite the fact that it was adapted from years of reporting by respected journoalist Randall Sullivan (who inspires the character of Darius Jackson, personified by Forest Whitaker). After all, the film feels as if it was vetted to within an inch of its life so as not to elicit charges of libel or slander. (The exact end-credits language reads, “This work is inspired by real events but some dialogue has been imagined and characters added for dramatic purposes.”)

“City of Lies” is framed as one man against the Man, an honorable cop willing to take on a corrupt institution whose failure “to protect and to serve” Rodney King had ignited citywide protest just five years earlier. After the 1992 L.A. riots, the police department couldn’t afford any more bad publicity, the movie implies, and so — according to “City of Lies” — it orchestrated the PR disaster that was Rampart as a $125 million smoke screen to distract from Wallace’s case, which, based on projections of the rapper’s future earning potential, “would not only break the LAPD … it would bankrupt the city.”

That’s a lot to swallow, but then, one thing the Rampart scandal made clear was that some of Los Angeles’ most nefarious criminals have been cops, so it’s not unreasonable to believe what “City of Lies” is selling: the claim that LAPD officers did double-duty working security for Death Row Records (Shakur’s label) and that these same men “helped coordinate the murder of Christopher Wallace.” To make the case, Furman reconstructs the shooting — just outside L.A.’s Petersen Automotive Museum — by placing David Mack and a blue-suit-and-bow-tie-wearing figure (actor Chris Jai Alex as suspected gunman Amir Muhammad, but curiously unidentified in the credits) at the scene of the crime.

Wallace’s murder is actually the least exciting of the action set-pieces the movie has to offer; it opens instead with a bizarre road-rage incident between two undercover police officers, one Black (Amin Joseph as Kevin Gaines, blasting Snoop Dogg from his SUV), the other white (Shea Whigham as Frank Lyga, rocking one mangy mullet). Later, an armed bank robbery supplies both adrenaline and a plausible connection between Mack and Death Row co-founder Suge Knight via a black Chevy Impala SS, police walkie-talkies and GECO 9mm bullets.

When Poole’s superiors won’t listen, there’s always the media. But “City of Lies” seems interested in the wrong mystery. The film seeks to answer why the LAPD would have failed to make any arrests in Wallace’s murder, when what audiences really want to know two dozen years later is why he was killed in the first place. Contreras’ script tries to clear Smalls of any involvement in Shakur’s execution (six months earlier in Vegas, with Knight in the car), but the backstory of an East Coast-West Coast beef has always been more compelling than the bureaucratic incompetence with which Furman’s film concerns itself.

Early in the movie — but 18 years into the investigation — Jackson seeks out Poole at home, which suggests a serial killer’s lair more than a cop’s apartment: a grungy dump with notecards, clues and newspaper clippings tacked to practically every surface. No wonder, since production designer Clay A. Griffith served as art director on David Fincher’s “Seven.” But Furman takes even greater inspiration from Fincher’s “Zodiac,” about another notorious California case with nothing but loose ends, where journalists dug alongside detectives to no avail.

Like that film, “City of Lies” revels in the complexity of the whole mess (Sullivan’s book was called “LAbyrinth” after all), skipping around in time and making things more confusing than they have to be. The movie wants to have it both ways, depicting Poole as both a crackpot and L.A.’s lone decent cop (while others pull Sullivan over and proceed to harass him), before trying to wrap everything up with a series of phony feel-good scenes — a front-page Los Angeles Times story, a blessing from Wallace’s mom, Voletta, as herself. The truth is out there, but when pot and kettle go to battle, Hollywood best be careful using the term “City of Lies” to describe anything other than itself.

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