Review: Depp plays ex-cop obsessed with Biggie murder in 'City of Lies'

Forest Whitaker co-stars in film that's been sitting on shelf since 2018

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

A quarter century after their murders, Biggie and Tupac continue to fascinate, and residual interest in their still unsolved cases is enough to carry the haphazard "City of Lies" over its creative doldrums. 

Johnny Depp plays retired Los Angeles detective Russell Poole, whose obsession with the Biggie murder inspired the interior decorating of his grungy L.A. apartment, the walls of which are littered with mugshots, news clippings and other pieces of paraphernalia that people in movies hang on their wall to show they're consumed with a particular case. 

Johnny Depp in "City of Lies."

But it's not because of Big's celebrity. To Poole, he is the victim of a crime who deserves justice for his murder, justice that he's still trying to deliver. "When you speak to me, you refer to him as Christopher, or Mr. Wallace," he tells a journalist pressing for answers on Biggie's death. "You owe him that." 

That journalist is Forest Whitaker's Jackson, whose work on a retrospective on the murders of Biggie and Pac lead him to Poole. Jackson wants a simple answer on who pulled the trigger. What he gets is an in-depth lesson on the corruption inside the Los Angeles Police Department, the ways Suge Knight's Death Row Records infiltrated the LAPD and the massive cover-ups that lead to both murders remaining, to this day, unsolved. 

The screenplay by Christian Contreras is based on Randall Sullivan's 2002 book "LAbyrinth," the implications from which it treats a little too much as gospel. (The book's veracity has been called into question.) Depp's beaten down demeanor plays well into Poole, a man who's been undone by his code of ethics and his quest for truth. As a thriller, it never quite reaches its boiling point, which may be one reason it's been sitting on the shelf since 2018. But as the portrait of a man obsessed and the forces stacked up against him, it earns its stripes. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'City of Lies'

GRADE: B-

Rated R: for language throughout, some violence and drug use

Running time: 112 minutes

In theaters