City of Lies Synopsis: Los Angeles Police Department detective Russell Poole (Johnny Depp) has spent years trying to solve his biggest case – the murders of The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur – but after two decades, the investigation remains open. Jack Jackson (Forest Whitaker), a reporter desperate to save his reputation and career, is determined to find out why. In search of the truth, the two team up and unravel a growing web of institutional corruption and lies.
Lost amidst a wave of controversy and delays (the background may be crazier than the movie itself), the long-awaited detective drama City of Lies is finally seeing the light of day after spending nearly three years on the shelf. Director Brad Furman constructs a capable procedural piece around his resonate story, but his feature lacks the dynamism and brains to convey the case’s deeper connotations.
City of Lies’ general competence does make it a marketed improvement over other delayed titles (looking at you Chaos Walking). Furman continues to excel as a sturdy craftsman of procedural narratives (Lincoln Lawyer and The Infiltrator), establishing a grimey visual aesthetic to match his hard-hitting setting. His film has a distinct sense of place, creating a sense of tense unease with dangers and distrust lurking around every dimly-lit street corner.
The film’s central stars also live up to their pedigree. Johnny Depp’s subdued take is a welcomed change-up from his typically theatric work, while Forrest Whitaker adds some much-needed gravitas to his boilerplate journalist role. When the two characters are actually allowed to connect onscreen, their easy-going rapport displays sparks of humanity under the duo’s obsessive tendencies (both are kindred spirits in a way, dedicating their livelihoods to accomplish goals few others believe in).
Furman’s film boasts a promising nucleus. It’s just a shame that much of the film’s delivery settles for the bare minimum. Christian Contreras’s adaptation of Randall Sullivan’s factual novel loses itself amidst a myriad of detective jargon. Instead of analyzing any of the integral throughlines surrounding this case (take your pick between the racial divide sprouted from the Rodney King riots to the police corruption permeating throughout the department), Contreras’s script operates more like a tired CSI episode. The narrative also lacks a perspective on the case itself, tiredly traversing through the true story’s motions without personifying the events within a finite thesis (Tupac and Biggie have no presence, only being shown to be killed off).
City of Lies ultimately offers little to latch onto. Depp and Whittaker raise the material’s floor, but their thinly-written characters are too thankless to keep the narrative afloat. Attempts to shift towards character building only offer a series of melodramatic devices, as neither Poole nor Jackson evolve into fully-developed people outside of their shared responsibilities. After the film reveals its hand an hour in, the rest of the bloated runtime sleepwalks through melodrama before reaching its flat conclusion.
Fans of procedural dramas may find some appeals within the film’s straight-forward approach, but City of Lies’ lack of identity will leave most with a stilted and blandly-flavored effort.
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