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Review: City of Lies (2021)

City of Lies (2021)

Directed by: Brad Furman

Premise: Based on the non-fiction book LAbyrinth by Randall Sullivan. A former Los Angeles police detective (Johnny Depp) and a journalist (Forest Whitaker) pool their resources to investigate the murders of rappers Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G.

What Works: City of Lies is a rhetorical piece. It combines elements of a police procedural and film noir to tell an allegedly true story about the conspiracy and coverup around the murders of Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. What City of Lies alleges is wild but not inconceivable. The film plays out from the point of view of a journalist who connects with former detective Russell Poole. They retrace the initial investigation and uncover new evidence and reach the conclusion that Death Row Records, the music label run by Shug Knight, had Los Angeles police officers on its payroll and that Knight directed the murder of The Notorious B.I.G. and then used his contacts in the police department to conceal his involvement. The film’s rhetorical goals are assisted by the nonlinear narrative structure. This is a complicated story with key revelations coming at different points in the timeline. The nonlinear organization streamlines the storytelling and strengthens the film’s argument by drawing connections between new and old evidence. Johnny Depp plays Russell Poole and this is one of Depp’s better performances in recent years. As portrayed in the film, Poole lost his profession and his family to this case; his shame is evident throughout Depp’s performance.

What Doesn’t: City of Lies focuses primarily on the killing of The Notorious B.I.G. but the death of Tupac Shakur is equally important to this story but it is also much less clear. Both Tupac and Biggie are presented at a distance which makes some sense and maintains some of the rappers’ mysterious stature. However, Shug Knight is also kept out of the drama even though he is clearly central to the conspiracy. As a matter of drama, City of Lies might have benefitted from bringing Knight forward. The end of the picture isn’t quite satisfying. That’s part of the point. These murders remain officially unsolved. But there is a difference between an ambiguous or downbeat ending, like the conclusion of Chinatown, and the lack of resolution presented here. One fictionalized element of City of Lies is noteworthy and questionable. The journalist character is based upon white writer Randall Sullivan but he’s played by black actor Forest Whitaker. Switching the character’s ethnicity allows the filmmakers to comment upon the complex intersection of race and law enforcement but because race is so central to this story recasting one of the central characters feels somehow forced.

DVD extras: Commentary track, featurette, and deleted scenes.

Bottom Line: City of Lies is another entry in the category of films about Tupac Shakur, The Notorious B.I.G. and Death Row Records and this is one of the better titles and certainly one of the most provocative. It works better as a piece of argumentation than as a drama but it presents its argument convincingly and engagingly.

Episode: #870 (September 26, 2021)