Languishing since 2018, Brad Furman’s “City of Lies” is the latest attempt to monetize the unsolved 1990s murders of the rap artists Christopher Wallace (a.k.a. Notorious B.I.G.) and Tupac Shakur. The killings, previously wrestled with on film and in print, have spawned a morass of theories that would give even the most experienced filmmaker pause.
Not Furman, though, who (with the screenwriter Christian Contreras) sets about dramatizing Randall Sullivan’s 2002 nonfiction book, the aptly named “LAbyrinth,” with rather more appetite than artistry. His focus is Russell Poole (Johnny Depp, confusing somnolent with serious), a former Los Angeles police detective still tormented by his investigation into Wallace’s death decades earlier. We know this because his depressing apartment is liberally plastered in details of the case.
Into this psychological swamp comes Jack Jackson (Forest Whitaker), a journalist who’s working on a 20-year retrospective of the crimes. Jackson needs information, while Poole — who believes that the L.A.P.D. was actively involved in Wallace’s killing and the ensuing cover-up — needs a confessor. So we’re off down memory lane to watch Poole battle police corruption, hostile suspects and his antagonistic superiors.
At heart a movie about one man’s self-destructive obsession (Poole was forced to resign two weeks shy of his pension), “City of Lies” has an underlying, unexpected poignancy. The look is grimy and the atmosphere is grim; but what could have been a moody character study or a taut conspiracy thriller is instead a dreary procedural, a misbegotten mush of flashbacks, voice-overs and dead ends.
City of Lies
Rated R for offensive language and deadly weapons. Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes. In theaters. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.
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