Johnny Depp is a long way from his sleek “Donnie Brasco” days in “City of Lies.” In fact, save for the flashback scenes in this solid investigative procedural inspired by true events, Depp is playing a cop who’s retired — complete with graying hair and mustache, considerable paunch and world-weary eyes. His Russell Poole is out of the game and doesn’t have much to show for it, burning away his days and nights doing a whole lot of nothing, when opportunity knocks and he’s given one last chance to solve two cases that have haunted him for nearly 20 years: the murders of rap legends Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G.
Filmed in 2016-2017 but shelved for four years due to various legal complications, “City of Lies” is a dramatization of the non-fiction book “Labyrinth” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Randall Sullivan. Director Brad Furman and screenwriter Christian Contreras deliver a gritty, well-paced and involving drama, with Depp giving a low-key but effective performance as LAPD detective Russell Poole and Forest Whitaker at his quirky and edgy best as a journalist named Jack Jackson — essentially a fictionalized version of Sullivan.
“City of Lies” kicks off in attention-getting fashion with an incident of road rage set in 1997, involving a white guy (Shea Whigham) with a mullet and a Black man (Amin Joseph) booming rap music as they’re both stopped at a red light. Words and nasty looks are exchanged, a chase ensues — and shots are fired, leaving the Black man dead and the white guy holding up a badge and telling uniformed officers who roar up to the scene he’s a cop and the shooting victim drew down on him first.
In voice-over, Depp’s detective tells us the shooting took place eight miles northeast of where Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G., had been gunned down nine days prior. “I didn’t connect everything at first,” he says, “but when I did, I lost everything that mattered. That day on that street corner, the first door to the labyrinth opened.” Turns out the shooter was one Detective Frank Lyga, who had been working undercover for years, and the victim was Kevin Gaines, who also was with the L.A.P.D. and had done security work on the side for Suge Knight and Knight’s label, Death Row Records. Let the journey down the corrupt rabbit hole begin.
As Russell works to connect the dots between a rogue group of corrupt L.A. police officers and the shootings of Shakur and Wallace, he meets with resistance from the brass. This is just a few years after Rodney King and the O.J. trial, and the last thing the Los Angeles Police Department wants is another scandal, another ugly blemish on an already severely damaged reputation. Poole is the classic loner rebel cop who becomes obsessed with piecing the puzzle together, alienating most of his colleagues and becoming estranged from his wife and son.
Cut to 18 years later, with Whitaker’s Jackson hounding Russell at his shabby apartment until Russell finally agrees to team up with him to re-investigate the murders. (We know Russell is still obsessed with the cases because he has the obligatory collage of photos and newspaper clippings and Post-It notes covering his walls.) Depp and Whitaker are magnificent together — two movie stars delivering stripped-down, authentic performances reminiscent of the police and/or journalism procedurals of the 1970s, with the handheld camera work adding to the docudrama style. (Adding to the feeling of verité: Christopher Wallace’s mother, Voletta, plays herself in the film and is heartbreakingly effective in a pivotal late scene.)
“City of Lies” sometimes gets lost in the weeds of the complex and convoluted entanglements connecting Tupac and Biggie and Suge Knight and some breathtakingly corrupt cops; after all, we know the murders remain unsolved, despite the best efforts of an honest cop and a dogged journalist. Still, in large part due to the stellar work from Depp and Whitaker, this is a valuable and somewhat illuminating look back at the senseless, stunning killings of two rap icons just six months apart.