Release Date: March 19, 2021 (theaters); April 9 (digital/on-demand)
Running Time: 112 minutes
Who shot Christopher Wallace? This is a question that officially remains unanswered 24 years after the March 9, 1997 L.A. drive-by shooting of the influential rapper known “The Notorious B.I.G.” and “Biggie Smalls.” But if you asked retired Los Angeles Police Department Det. Russell Poole before his 2015 death, he likely would have told you he had enough evidence to implicate Death Row Records CEO Marion “Suge” Knight and at least one LAPD officer in Wallace’s murder. Knight, of course, oversaw the gangsta rap label that was home to Tupac Shakur, whose Sept. 13, 1996 in Las Vegas also remains unsolved. Poole’s theory, though, never led to any charges after then-LAPD Police Chief Bernard C. Parks ordered Poole to stop investigating disgraced Officer David Mack, a leading figure in the LAPD Rampart police corruption scandal whom Poole suspected had ties to Knight. Poole’s investigation serves as the foundation of director Brad Furman’s long-delayed fact-based police drama City of Lies, which features Johnny Depp giving an astute and purposeful portrayal of the unwavering Poole. A deep dive into Poole’s investigation into Wallace’s murder, City of Lies remains so committed to Poole’s theory that it features a cameo appearance by Wallace’s mother Voletta Wallace as herself during an exchange that all but puts Poole on a pedestal. (Voletta Wallace is even credited as an executive producer.) City of Lies is based on the 2002 nonfiction book “LAbyrinth” by Randall Sullivan, whose onscreen surrogate, journalist Jack Jackson (Forest Whitaker), serves as the equally inquisitive audiences’ eyes and ears. Played by Forest Whitaker, this fictional print and TV journalist tracks down Poole 18 years after Wallace’s murder for a retrospective piece. City of Lies’ concentrates its time and energy on Poole’s attempt to unravel the mystery behind Wallace’s untimely demise. So any exploration of Tupac’s murder—or of the East Coast-West Coast rap rivalry of the 1990s that pitted Wallace against Tupac—is conducted only as it related to Poole’s investigation of Wallace’s murder. City of Lies’ strict focus proves to be one of defining strengths. With Furman relying heavily on flashbacks, Poole guides Jackson through his thwarted investigation, connects all the dots, and laments on the systemic corruption that tainted an already controversial LAPD. He also paints a vivid picture of a post-Rodney King LAPD of the 1990s that was sensitive to accusations of discrimination but refused to confront its structural racism. This is effectively explored through a pivotal subplot involving a road rage incident between two men of different color, one white, one black, both united by the color blue. “I had a theory and my investigation was ripped out from underneath me,” the aggrieved Poole tells Jackson. And City of Lies goes out of its way to ensure Poole’s voice is heard and his theory presented without much of a challenge. It certainly helps that Furman and credited screenwriter Christian Contreras refuse to present Poole as a ranting and raving conspiracy theorist, even if every other sentence out of his mouth is a slam against the forces within the LAPD that stymied his investigation. Adopting a quietly authoritative timbre that keeps us hanging on his every word, Depp remains composed and rational as a dedicated public servant motivated by both the pursuit of the truth and an internalized anger at seeing justice denied. Depp calmly lays out Poole’s theory in such strong and convincing fashion that it is impossible to walk away from City of Lies without considering him a reliable narrator. At the time, Poole’s theory never seem that far-fetched when he first began pitching it almost two decades ago, especially taking into account Knight’s history of violence and intimidation and the LAPD’s racist and corrupt behavior. That said, City of Lies does not offer everything new in the way of information or supposition. So, ultimately, the job of City of Liesis to encapsulate and reinforce Poole’s theory, which it does so with clarity and conviction. By doing so, City of Lies gladly presents Poole as the lone honest lawman in a police department riddled with dirty and/or racist cops and—even worse—wannabe politicians. However true this may or may not be, City of Lies certainly falls into the trap of positioning Poole’s failings as a husband and a father as a badge of honor. Because it speaks to Poole’s devotion to a job. “I’m obsessed with the truth and that’s my sickness,” Poole tells Jackson, whose presence in City of Lies often borders on the passive. While Whitaker displays immense curiosity as Jackson, his journalist seems easily misled by and overly enamored with his subject. Yes, Jackson works to draw out information from Poole, but for the most part he is there to listen to Poole expound upon his theory and mourn the state of the LAPD. “Who shot Christopher Wallace?” Jackson asks Poole during an early interview. It is a question we are still asking ourselves 24 years later. And it is a question City of Lies obviously can only go so far in answering. As Poole goes, so does City of Lies. Which leaves us with no choice but to wait and see how much of Poole’s theory—as convincing as it is—lies in the truth.
Aired: April 15, 2021.