Movie Review: ‘City Of Lies’

Review by James Lindorf

Movies getting shelved after production isn’t that uncommon and can happen for a few reasons. There could be issues with quality causing the studio to be unwilling to spend the money necessary to promote a surefire flop. There could be financial issues with the studio in general, like when M.G.M.’s problems caused “The Cabin in the Woods” to be delayed by over two years. Sometimes there are even legal battles over rights, personal issues, or disputes about distribution. Most movies that get shelved have unknowns in front of or behind the camera, if not both. With talented and known quantities, quality is generally assured. Plus, studios always want to back stars because they bring in the money.

“City of Lies” would seem to have everything going for it, including an incredibly talented cast led by Oscar® nominee Johnny Depp and Oscar® and Primetime Emmy® winner Forest Whitaker. It was based on the book LAByrinth by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Randall Sullivan about the investigation into the infamous murder of Hip Hop Icon Christopher Wallace, aka The Notorious B.I.G. The production was helmed by Brad Furman, who has a history with crime/legal thrillers, including “The Lincoln Lawyer,” “Runner Runner,” and “The Infiltrator.” The combination of money woes and legal drama kept the crime thriller on the shelves for nearly four years before it was released with a whimper on April 9th, 2021.

The basic idea when making a film is that the director will make the necessary decisions and put the right people in place to bring the screenplay to life. There are several great success stories from Casablanca, to Jaws, to Iron Man of directors and teams working from outlines or scripts written during production. While this gives the director more freedom to craft the story, it can inflate production times and budgets and still result in a disjointed mess. Even with a complete screenplay, without the willingness and the ability to make wholesale changes, a messy script becomes a sloppy film. This is precisely what happened to “City of Lies.”

Both Depp and Whitaker turn in quality performances. Depp is the determined former LAPD detective Russell Poole, who spent nearly 20 years trying to solve the murder. Poole is a boy scout with a strong sense of justice; he is also broken over what the case has cost him in the form of his wife and son. Whitaker is journalist Jack Jackson who teams up with Poole in search of the elusive truth of who was responsible for Biggie’s murder. Jackson is essentially a fictionalized version of Sullivan and is peak, Whitaker. The intrepid reporter is quirky and edgy while also managing to be endearing as long as it’s not your home he casually enters without permission. Complementing the acting is Furman and cinematographer Monika Lenczewska who gave the film an excellent stripped-down look. Its muted tones and handheld camera work invoke the police/journalism procedurals of the 1970s.

“City of Lies” is the definition of a love it or hate it movie. It has a good look, a compelling story even if we know it won’t end with a closed case and beautiful performances. That is usually more than enough to earn anyone’s affection. However, “City of Lies” repeatedly gets lost in complex entanglements connecting Biggie, to Tupac, to Suge Knight, and finally to lots of corrupt cops. The pursuit of the shocking reveal overshadowed the need to tell a story that flows and keeps audiences entertained. If you are willing to give the story a bit of a pass, “City of Lies” is well worth the watch just to appreciate the craft involved in making a movie.

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