City of Lies debuts in theaters on March 19 and on Digital and On Demand on April 9. [poilib element="accentDivider"] Occurring within months of each other in late 1996 and early 1997, the shooting deaths of rap icons Tupac Shakur and Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace are indelible stamps on a particular moment in time. As a high school student at the time, shock at their passings was coupled with speculation on who did it and why. It speaks to how much of an impact both musicians made in such a short time that the curiosity surrounding their respective deaths remains a heated part of the cultural conversation nearly a quarter-century later. Director Brad Furman’s City of Lies attempts to both answer and add to this speculation, but a scattershot stylistic approach and some questionable narrative choices make the film a mixed bag at best. Arriving on VOD this week after several years languishing on studio shelves (it was filmed in 2016 and originally scheduled for release in 2018), the film’s leading turn from tarnished star Johnny Depp makes its very existence as much a time capsule as the subject matter it covers. Based on the book LAbyrinth by author Randall Sullivan, the film hones in on the events surrounding Wallace’s shooting, with Furman using his Lincoln Lawyer-honed procedural skills to jump-off into a wider examination of corruption within the LAPD. Depp occupies the lead role of Russell Poole, the Los Angeles detective initially tasked with investigating Wallace’s death before a separate-but-related shooting nine days later involving two L.A. police officers, one of whom was affiliated with Death Row Records -- rivals of Notorious B.I.G.’s Bad Boy Records. Poole is soon pulled into a depressing morass of corruption throughout the LAPD, and begins an obsession spanning nearly two decades. Much of the preceding is conveyed via flashbacks set in 2015, via conversations between Poole and journalist “Jack” Jackson (Forest Whitaker), who is himself attempting to cover the Biggie story in hopes of repairing his own damaged reputation. [ignvideo width=610 height=374 url=] This bifurcated lens -- that of police and that of journalism -- allows for a welcome exploration of the shootings from both a legal and cultural perspective, but too often it has the effect of refracting our focus, making it feel like we’re peering through one window to look through another. Indeed, the film is at its most compelling when methodically laying out the expanding web of criminality surrounding the shootings as well as the many parties involved, bolstered by a strong roster of supporting players like Shea Whigham and Xander Berkeley. But problems arise when screenwriter Christian Contreras’ script attempts to tackle a lot of big ideas relating to pop culture and race and political corruption without really laying the track to underline why the East Coast-West Coast feud was such a big deal, and why it would have been such an appealing prospect for law officers to align themselves with the feuding labels. This ends up making things muddier as more elements are added to the mix instead of bringing them into sharper relief. By the end, we are practically drowning in muck as we take stock of a system seemingly bent on remaining bent. A separate problem is Depp’s mannered, mumbly performance. Even noticeably grayer, sporting a paunch and fuzzy upper-lip, Depp’s Poole still feels like a collection of the actor’s most recognizable tics. Granted, achieving anonymity is difficult for a star who at one time commanded as much wattage as Depp, but for someone who, also at one time, was known for his ability to effortlessly disappear into roles, it’s notable just how much the persona overwhelms the performance here. Far from a proud reclamation of superstar status for Depp, this serves instead as a hollow reminder of the days when his mere presence on the marquee was enough to guarantee acclaim. The real Poole passed away of a heart attack in 2015, leaving unsolved the crime that consumed the last 18 years of his life, and while his cinematic incarnation is portrayed as honorable and upstanding (if flawed), he also remains largely a cipher, unfortunately. Yes, he’s driven by the desire to seek justice for Wallace and expose the corruption within the department, but we never get enough of a sense of what motivates him. Something to elevate the whole thing and make it seem like anything but a modern Serpico riff, with Poole as the proverbial Last Good Cop. Meanwhile, the relationship with Jackson, while allowing for the simple joy of seeing two talented actors like Depp and Whitaker play off each other, follows a too-familiar arc ending at a place that doesn’t feel entirely earned. [widget path="global/article/imagegallery" parameters="albumSlug=2021-movies-preview&captions=true"]