‘City of Lies’ Movie Review: Johnny Depp Hunts for The Notorious B.I.G.’s Killer

On television, police procedurals like Law & Order have a long, prosperous history. But on the big screen, they have a much rougher track record. With that in mind, City of Lies — starring Johnny Depp and Forest Whitaker — tackles the unsolved 1997 mystery of The Notorious B.I.G. As followers of that true crime saga know, the results are about as mixed as expected.

Johnny Depp in 'City of Lies'
Johnny Depp in ‘City of Lies’ | Saban Films

‘City of Lies’ tackles the 1997 murder of The Notorious B.I.G.

City of Lies stars Depp as a retired Los Angeles detective who teams with a journalist (Whitaker) to finally close the case of who killed Christopher Wallace aka The Notorious B.I.G. Based on the non-fiction book LAbyrinth by Randall Sullivan, the film follows this duo down the rabbit hole of clues pointed directly at corruption in the Los Angeles Police Department.

The movie plays out much like other true crime saga of its ilk. But because City of Lies compresses years of investigation into a single 112-minute movie, the story comes across both convoluted and rushed. Perhaps it was already a disappointing sign the film opens with a news report and relies on archive footage to provide context.

Despite its seemingly singular focus on the rapper’s murder, City of Lies’ attempt to weave a complex story falls short of capturing the inherent epicness at hand. Other films have tried to cover the tensions which resulted in the deaths of The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur. City of Lies is just the latest to fall short of doing justice to that period in history.

Johnny Depp and Forest Whitaker turn in solid performances

To be fair, director Brad Furman isn’t at fault. He has found past success with films such as 2011’s The Lincoln Lawyer and 2016’s The Infiltrator. The former even launched Matthew McConaughey’s comeback, culminating in his 2014 Oscar win. But the subject matter of City of Lies feels too grand for Furman’s usual approach, revealing the movie’s shortcomings instead.

Depp and Whitaker do their best to elevate the material. Of course, Depp has become a controversial figure over the past decade, due to his personal life and struggle to land another hit movie. But the actor is more dialed in with City of Lies than he has been in years. Moreover, he and Whitaker share solid chemistry. But the movie can’t decide where its priority lies.

At various points, Furman’s movie feels drawn to uncovering the truth behind The Notorious B.I.G.’s murder. Sometimes, the focus turns to the cost Depp’s character has paid for his obsession with the case. And then there are times in which the shaky alliance and burgeoning friendship between its leads are the heart of City of Lies. In the end, it doesn’t all fit together.


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‘City of Lies’ arrives on video-on-demand services on April 9, 2021

Originally scheduled for a 2018 release, City of Lies was pulled from the schedule just a month before it hit theaters, Deadline reported. However, it’s unclear whether the move resulted from a lawsuit between Depp and the movie’s location manager. The film finally arrived in U.S. theaters on March 19, 2021 and will be available on video-on-demand on April 9.

Although it isn’t the best work by its stars or its director, City of Lies did deserve better. The movie isn’t the definitive film about The Notorious B.I.G.’s unsolved murder, despite the involvement of the late rapper’s mother Voletta Wallace. For a modern true crime epic, fans should seek out David Fincher’s Zodiac. But they could also do a lot worse than City of Lies.