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Deep Cover

Deep Cover (1992)

April. 15,1992
| Action Thriller Crime

Black police officer Russell Stevens applies for a special anti-drug squad which targets the highest boss of cocaine delivery to LA—the Colombian foreign minister's nephew. Russell works his way up from the bottom undercover, until he reaches the boss.


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Deep Cover is directed by Bill Duke and written by Michael Tolkin and Henry Bean. It stars Larry Fishburne, Jeff Goldblum, Charles Martin Smith, Victoria Dillard and Gregory Sierra. Music is by Michel Colombier and cinematography by Bojan Bazelli.Traumatised as a youngster by the death of his junkie father, Russell Stevens (Fishburne) becomes a police officer. Passing an interview with DEA Agent Gerald Carver (Smith), Stevens goes undercover to bust a major drug gang that has links to high places. But the closer he gets in with the targets, the deeper he gets involved - emotionally and psychologically.A splendid slice of gritty neo-noir, Deep Cover follows a classic film noir theme of a man descending into a world he really shouldn't be part of. This is a shifty and grungy Los Angeles, awash with blood money, single parents prepared to sell their kids, where kids in their early teens mule for the dealers and get killed in the process. A place of dimly lighted bars and pool halls, of dank streets and scrap yards, and of course of violence and misery.The look and tone of the picture is as intense as the characterisations on show. Duke (A Rage in Harlem) knows some tricks to imbue psychological distortion, canted angles, step-print framing, slow angled lensing, jump cuts and sweaty close ups. Bazelli photographs with a deliberate urban feel, making red prominent and black a lurking menace. While the musical accompaniments flit in between hip-hop thunder and jazzy blues lightning.Fishburne provides a narration that works exceptionally well, harking back to classic noirs of yesteryear. As this grim tale unfolds, his distressingly down-beat tone goes hand in hand with the narrative's sharp edges. The screenplay is always smart and cutting, mixing political hog-wash and social commentary with the harsh realities of lives dominated by drugs - the users - the sellers - the cartel, and the cop going deeper underground...Great performances from the leading players seal the deal here (Goldblum is not miscast he's the perfect opposite foil for Fishburne's broody fire), and while some clichés are within the play, the production as mounted, with the narrative devices of identification destruction (hello 2 masks) and that violence begets violence, marks this out as one the neo-noir crowd should note down as a must see. 8/10


This highly stylized pulp thriller from the early 90's remains quite an entertaining movie so long as one doesn't look too deeply into it. What sets it apart from similar movies of its ilk is the performance from Jeff Goldblum as a greedy, crazed Yuppie drug dealer. He steals scenes left and right from other cast members with a manic, over the top energy that is easily the highlight of the film. Unfortunately, he gets handed some of the worst lines in the movie, uproariously funny with his dead pan delivery however. Laurence Fishburne deserves honorable mention here as well for his scene where he begins to spontaneously rap pseudo-Beat street poetry to another character in the film.Entertaining, but as previously mentioned, don't look too deeply into it.


As far as I (the "me") am concerned, this is a really top 10 of the decade movie. Fishbourne gives an amazing, stellar performance that served to cement his reputation as a talented, malleable (to be lauded in an actor...) professional. To truly understand the content of this movie, you literally have to be thinking "Shakespearian" to put it in context. That he played Othello after is a rather pleasingly obvious choice. Put together hungry, ambitious actors and actresses, excellent writing that con-temporizes perennial concerns; combine with innovative, just beyond the current accepted edge cinematography; and you get Deep Cover. A deep symmetry and (of) actor sympathy (not necessarily in that order) reveals truths all but concealed by contemporary brusqueness. See the gd thing to appreciate it, and do it late at night. It is truly the sleeper of the last 2 decades; see it and be in on it.


Where to begin in commenting about this film? Deep Cover - the low-budget motion picture that captivated moviegoers on its release in 1992 and thereafter with its multifarious blur of conventions - has become irreplaceable in this cineaste's film-loving career.It seemed indistinct enough at the time of its release. Like so many other films about cops and bad guys, Deep Cover promised little else from what we were used to. Since movie culture primed filmgoers for stories about police who kill to attempt justice, we expected little else from it. Actor Laurence Fishburne, perhaps best known for his roles in School Daze (1988) and Boyz N the Hood (1991), didn't seem out of place here (in his first lead role), while actor Jeff Goldblum definitely did.I missed the film in theaters.The film's storyline owes its uniqueness to the subversions it pulls off. Deep Cover builds into the mythical from what seems like a simple cop story, while laying the psychology of its protagonist Russell Stevens, Jr. (Fishburne) bare with its madcap plotting. A proper reading of it is facilitated by the words of a passing character early in the film: "That's the problem these days. People have no imagination." Imagination is exactly what is needed to absorb the narrative of a cop pretending to be a drug dealer, who eventually realizes he's a drug dealer pretending to be a cop. Russell, renamed John by DEA agent Gerald Carver (Charles Martin Smith) to engage his undercover operation, braves misadventure and danger to work his way into the mid-level drug operation of David Jason (Jeff Goldblum). The idea explained by Carver is to work through and ascend a pyramid topped by a high-level cocaine supplier and take him down via the operation. But John must brave Hell to reach his goal, which is introduced to him by the superior agent Carver who says he's "God." A truly fascinating scene in the film comes due to masculine grudgery between Jason and drug dealer Felix Barbosa (Gregory Sierra). It is the birthday party of Barbosa's aide Gopher (Sydney Lassick) and Felix is more than ready to question David's criminal toughness. Before the eyes of the assemblage gathered around a table, Felix taunts David until he loses his cool. Felix then requests that David play a "game" of hand-slapping with him. John's vocal objection falls upon deaf ears. David goes along with the brutal sport until he is injured and humiliated. As John and David leave the small gathering, John notes by voice-over that one of the men will eventually kill the other.John is brought aboard Jason's operation. While John argues that Jason needs a partner, Jason says he wants him as a courier. Jason explains his goal to John of introducing a practical synthetic cocaine to the market - a fitting ambition for a white husband who habitually lusts after younger black women and learns to murder for vindication. (The issue of interracial sex is given no short shrift in Duke's theatrical sci-fi film, by the way.) John finds a trustworthy friend in African art dealer Betty (Victoria Dillard), but only travels further along the path of righteous outrage. David's path to Nirvana is paved with black and Latino bodies. It should seem that John's moment of realization of killing a man with impunity might serve as a wake-up call. It doesn't. Only when John's neatly constructed role collapses before him, at Carver's behest, comes his awakening. Out-powered and frustrated, John realizes that he's acted as a puppet to the Feds. Fishburne rocks the screen with this mercurial persona of his creation. John takes his very first drink and leaves the sputtering Carver behind. Russell/John's rebirth is soon to come.The best term to describe John's resolution of the conflict between social hierarchical manipulation and spiritual salvation is vigilante justice. John must rewrite the rules of the game and reclaim Russell before it is too late. And he must do it while dealing with high-level drug suppliers and the Feds.Probably the most compelling aspect of Duke's film on its 1992 release and to date is its avant-garde form and content. David Jason's worldview could best be described as forcedly Edenic, whereas John Hull's plot at the film's end shows thought of Utopian character. The confusion that the John/Russell character suffers toward the film's climax is reminiscent of Ralph Ellison's 1952 novel Invisible Man. In each work, a black male protagonist struggles against a disturbingly fluid identity put upon him by society. This perhaps intentional "homage" to Ellison's classic waxes especially rhapsodic when John delivers free verse poetry on the spot and quotes crime writer Iceberg Slim when his luck runs out.Jeff Goldblum's David Jason is a product of genius, a brilliantly crafted greed warrior similar to, and better than, the one limned by Al Pacino's Satan in The Devil's Advocate. This is white liberalism gone psychotic. And as for Bill Duke's direction, it was never better realized as it is during Deep Cover's macho dog-fights, stark realizations, and camera tricks (the shot wherein a man walks across a frame and wipes it away to the next one has since become standard in black film), and it may never be again. Deep Cover ushered in the fragments of an emerging black film aesthetic. Maybe some day it will receive the critical overview it deserves.