The Film: Deep Cover (1992)
The Principles: Bill Duke (director), Michael Tolkin (writer), Henry Bean (cowriter), Laurence “Larry” Fishburne, Jeff Goldblum, Clarence Williams III, Victoria Dillard, Charles Martin Smith
The Premise: John Hull (Fishburne), a Cleveland cop recently transplanted to LA, is recruited in a long-term DEA undercover operation that seeks to bring down high level Mexican cocaine dealers. As these things tend to go, the lines between right and wrong get blurred as John goes deeper and deeper into the drug-crazed underbelly of LA.
Is it any good? It is AWESOME. Part-noir, part-thriller, part-blaxploitation, Deep Cover is one of the most overlooked gems of the 90s. Fishburne is solid in his first leading role, and does a great job selling his moral struggle as the film goes down the well-trodden path of “the only thing separating the cops from the criminals is the uniform.” Deep Cover isn’t breaking any new ground; it’s built on all of the tropes of cop-enters-the-drug-underworld movies past. But it fulfills these tropes exceedingly well.
John’s first connection in the drug scene is the unreliable but funny as hell Eddie (Roger Guenveur Smith), who quickly introduces him to David Jason (Goldblum), the sleazy drug dealer/lawyer who will become his partner in crime. Goldblum, who plays Jason with all of his usual tics and quirks, is wildly entertaining and the source of most of the film’s comedy. He takes Tolkin and Bean’s immensely quotable script and knocks every line out of the park (“We’ll have barbecue jumbo shrimp, you motherfucker!”) On top of this, he manages to be convincing when he goes into cold-blooded killer mode, and is downright chilling in his nonchalance with one execution late in the film (though levity is quickly returned by Fishburne’s insane reaction).
Charles Martin Smith is incredibly punchable as John’s handler, and Clarence Williams III brings his awesome face to the proceedings as a preaching cop who is on John “like stink on doodoo.” As things progress throughout the film, John is faced with situations that pull him farther and farther off the righteous path on which he promised his deceased father he would stay. From street slinger to middle-man to millionaire designer-drug dealer, Fishburne’s noir-ish narration gives some extra depth to the relatively stone-faced persona he carries through the movie.
Tonally, Deep Cover is all over the place. Director Bill Duke seems interested in discussing the issues surrounding the drug trade, particularly its value to the rich white man, as well as the political corruption inherent in the War on Drugs™. He does fare well in shining a bit of light on these matters, but then a hilarious juicehead dealer named Ivy comes along, quoting Terminator 2 and pissing on Laurence Fishburne’s shoes, and you realize it is nigh-impossible to take anything that happens here seriously.
Is it worth a look? Definitely. It’s worth watching for Goldblum alone. Plus, you have cameos by the likes of Gregory Sierra, Clifton Powell, Julio Oscar Mechoso, Tony Perez, and Glynn Turman. It’s dated as hell, but that takes nothing away from how damn fun this movie is.
Random anecdotes: The poetry found throughout John’s narration comes from author Iceberg Slim, who was a pimp before reforming himself into a writer.
This is Laurence Fishburne’s last movie in which he Is credited as “Larry Fishburne.”
Cinematic soulmates: King of New York, New Jack City, Coffy