City of Lies
2021, R, 112 min. Directed by Brad Furman. Starring Johnny Depp, Forest Whitaker, Toby Huss, Dayton Callie, Neil Brown Jr..
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., March 26, 2021
The film is based on LAbyrinth, the 2003 book by journalist Randall Sullivan that placed Biggie Smalls’ death directly at the feet of L.A. police officers with ties to Death Row Records. In the film, retired homicide detective Russell Poole (Depp, who unwisely also plays Poole in flashbacks) forms an uneasy friendship with Jack Jackson (Whitaker), a journalist working on an anniversary “lookback.” As the two join forces on the unsolved murder investigation, Poole brings Jackson deeper into a web of conspiracies and murders that puts the LAPD at the center of the music industry’s most infamous (possible) murder for hire.
In the tradition of police procedurals, a mystery can only be mysterious if we have faith in the intelligence of the characters pursuing the truth. Sure, Whitaker plays Jackson as a self-avowed sellout, a former rising star who stakes his career to a piece of bad reporting. But City of Lies also uses him as a plot device, a character who more than once barges into rooms to loudly demand the truth, only to leave with his tail between his legs when his lack of research betrays him. If Jackson is meant to be an audience surrogate, then City of Lies seems to have little faith in its viewers.
If Jackson were just an incompetent journalist, this would be an unflattering portrayal. But a Black journalist who must have the racial dynamics between the LAPD and the people of Los Angeles explained to him by a white cop is another issue altogether. Despite touching on everything from the death of Biggie to the Rampart scandal to the O.J. Simpson trial, City of Lies takes a position firmly outside Black culture, and that makes it hard to understand what higher point it hopes to make about police corruption.
Poole describes his need for the truth as a sickness. As the investigation unfolds, Depp waxes poetic about the tainted honor of being a good cop in a bad city. He also makes it clear that, where the law is concerned, he is entirely colorblind. “I saw clues that said our bad guys might be cops,” Poole explains. “Miller only saw that we were white cops accusing Black cops.” In a film that practically demands hard conversations about the intersection of race and police influence, this approach drains the movie of any lingering relevance it might have achieved in its too-late release.
These choices are all the more frustrating because Furman’s direction provides City of Lies with a polish most police thrillers lack. Furman – who rose to prominence with 2011’s The Lincoln Lawyer – has a knack for creating texture without overshadowing his actors’ performances. Consider an early crime scene investigation, which unfolds as a single shot from a mostly static camera. This sequence establishes Poole’s competence as an investigating officer without drawing attention to Furman as the director. As a result, it feels somehow modern and classic at the same time.
Ultimately, City of Lies is more James Ellroy than docudrama, resulting in a tired police thriller that hitched its wagon to an untenable star. Those looking to explore the East Coast/West Coast rivalry of the early Nineties – or the protests sparks by years of LAPD violence and abuses – would do well to seek out the many (many) documentaries that explore these events through a historical lens.