When I think of unsolved true crime stories that work for the screen, I think of cases like Jack The Ripper or the infamous Mr. Cruel story from right here in Melbourne. It’s strange, because I am a music lover, but my mind doesn’t instantly think of the fact that the murders of two of the biggest rappers in the genre, The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur are still unsolved.
Over the years, it has also felt that the crimes have been largely over-looked by Hollywood as well because while there has been the much underrated Notorious released in 2009 and a handful of documentaries made on the subject, the two murders have never become the screenwriter’s fodder that you thought they would have.
That is changed in a very big way with the latest film from director Brad Furman, who has previously brought us excellent films like The Lincoln Lawyer and The Infiltrator, the simply titled City Of Lies. Plot-wise the films follows the non-fiction account of Randall Sullivan and shows what happens when dogged reporter Jack Jackson (Forest Whitaker – The Last King Of Scotland) decides that he is going to prove himself to his colleagues by solving the case of the murder of The Notorious B.I.G.
Jackson’s leads take him straight to Russell Poole (Johnny Depp – Pirates Of The Caribbean), a now disgraced former Detective whose theories on the murder saw him laughed out of the Police Force. While Jackson suspects that Poole’s theory will be farcical, things start to change when Poole seems reluctant to tell the story until he can properly trust Jackson.
I would be lying if I said that City Of Lies is an easy watch – it is anything but. While at times the scenes are reminiscent of The Shield, at other times the film meanders slowly through flashbacks taking the viewers down a rabbit burrow that feels like it leads to warren after warren. The screenplay and the work of Furman do little to spice up the story at all, so it is likely that only those who appreciate hardened true crime will enjoy this story of police corruption and the relentless question after question.
What does make the film watchable and kept my interest throughout were the performances of Depp and Whitaker. Often Johnny Depp is written off as a ‘clown’ actor – someone who is only in his element when he gets the opportunity to be over-the-top and over-act – but that is far from the truth. When it comes to films like The Rum Diary and his performance here in City Of Lies, Depp shows that he can produce naturalistic portrayals that are so realistic, at times you feel like you are watching found footage.
Depp goes head to head with Whitaker in this film and both put in stunning performances that convincingly appear like they would be more at home on stage than on screen. While the story does feel lacking of some ‘oomph’, Depp and Whitaker’s performances certainly do not. Their performances are classics for the ages.
There is little doubt that City Of Lies could have been a much better film. A serious re-write of the script could have resulted in a much more accessible film for its audiences, however, you could also argue that it may have not given these great actors the opportunity to expand their performances the way that they did with the current script as is. Perhaps, I’m better off saying that this is a film for the true crime lovers out there and leave it at that.