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City of Lies
A film as generic as its title, City of Lies takes an interesting topic - the unsolved murder of rapper Notorious B.I.G. - and places it amid a bland police procedural. Shot more than four years ago by Director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer), City of Lies wants desperately to be a Zodiac copycat but has trouble planning its narrative. Johnny Depp gives a decent performance as the Los Angeles Police Department detective who followed the case for 20 years, but Forest Whitaker, as a journalist also searching for answers, seems to mumble through most of his performance. Diehard fans of the Biggie/Tupac saga may find something of interest here, but there are countless other documentaries, articles and the source material for this film, Randall Sullivan's "LAbyrinth," that offer more enlightening takes on the investigation.
Two decades after the 1997 murder of Christopher Wallace, aka the Notorious B.I.G., in downtown Los Angeles, reporter Jack Jackson (Whitaker, in a fictional role) contacts retired LAPD detective Russell Poole (Depp) about diving back into the unsolved murder case, with an emphasis on the connection between Biggie's murder and the police department. The film hops back and forth in time thanks to Christian Contreras' muddled script, giving viewers quick glimpses of the major players, including mogul Suge Knight, in the Bad Boy/Death Row records rivalry in full swing at the time of both Tupac's 1996 and Biggie's 1997 murder. City of Lies provides some context of what is going on, but casual viewers without any familiarity with the subject will likely be lost. Conspiracy and possibly valid theories abound about the murders, but Poole believes members of the LAPD covered up their ties to Knight's Death Row Records and its possible involvement in Biggie's murder. In the semi-present, Jackson pushes Poole to re-evaluate his theories on the case, and consider why it was never solved.
After sitting on the shelf for nearly five years due to various legal disputes, City of Lies feels stale. Other than some of the talent involved, the film feels, frankly, like a direct-to-video effort. The narrative is slipshod and confusing, and City of Lies manages to both try to cram too much exposition into and drag during its 112-minute running time. No one topic is adequately explored, and the film instead provides a CliffsNotes version of this investigation, which feels undercooked and uninvolved. This material could be, and has been, stretched into multi-hour documentaries or series. The corruption inside the LAPD is a hell of a spicy plot device, but City of Lies discusses it in the broadest and least interesting of terms. More criminally, the film never connects with its talented victim, and uses the Notorious B.I.G. as little more than a sign post in the narrative.
Depp, looking haggard in older-age makeup in half of the film, gives a decent performance. This is not the showy Depp who has fallen somewhat from moviegoers' good graces in recent years thanks to personal turmoil. I do not totally discount this more-restrained Depp, and it is the direction and screenplay that fail the actor, not his talents. Whitaker, a fantastic, forceful actor, is relegated to mumbly, circular dialogue here, and Furman proves again and again throughout the film incapable of wrangling or utilizing the considerable on-screen talent. Those looking for insight into the murder of Wallace will be presented with the outline of one theory and a couple of colorful suspects, but City of Lies is regrettably short on answers and dramatic intrigue.
The 2.39:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image is workmanlike, without major flaws. Fine-object detail is solid, with facial features, textures and sets appearing in abundant clarity. Wide shots are crisp and clear, and the grain for this film-shot production is lifelike. Black levels are solid, and I noticed only minor crush. Colors are nicely saturated and highlights are kept in check. I spotted some aliasing but nothing overly distracting.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is lively and engaging, with solid dialogue reproduction. Ambient and action effects make good use of the surrounds, and the LFE thumps along to effects and the rap-music soundtrack selections. I noticed no hiss or distortion. English SDH and Spanish subtitles are available.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This single-disc release includes a digital copy. The eco-case is wrapped in a slipcover. Extras include an Audio Commentary with Director Brad Furman and Author Randall Sullivan; Crafting the Characters of City of Lies (12:14/HD), with cast and crew interviews; and a few Deleted Scenes (9:50 total/HD).
The unsolved murder of the Notorious B.I.G. has been discussed elsewhere to better results. City of Lies is a generic police procedural that fails to capitalize on the talents of Johnny Depp and Forest Whitaker. Skip It.
William lives in Burlington, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.