On last week’s Shouts From the Back Row podcast on “Movies About the Movies”, we had an in-depth discussion about Robert Altman’s Hollywood satire, The Player, which was adapted from an acclaimed novel by Michael Tolkin and showcased the inner workings of the Hollywood studio system. Tolkin has worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood for many years and has even directed two feature films, The Rapture and The New Age, and it’s obvious that he probably has lots of first-hand experience with the frustrating and often soul-crushing studio system that is depicted in The Player. Tolkin is a writer who has never wanted to follow traditional formula and The Rapture and The New Age both tackle challenging, unconventional themes which are not often seen in a mainstream Hollywood movie, so it’s almost a miracle they were green-lit at all. Even the more “mainstream” screenplays that Tolkin has worked on contain a lot more depth than you’d expect. Tolkin co-wrote the big-budget special effects blockbuster, Deep Impact, which told the story of a giant comet heading towards Earth and wiping out mankind, but behind the special effects was a surprisingly in-depth examination of how the world would react and attempt to live their lives once they learned about their impending doom. He also co-wrote the Ben Affleck/Samuel L. Jackson film, Changing Lanes, which looked like a pretty standard suspense thriller in the trailer, but surprised everyone by being an intelligent, character-centred drama about the ways in which people respond to stressful, high-pressure situations. The subject of this particular column is the underrated 1992 crime drama, Deep Cover, which, on paper, sounds like your standard generic action movie about cops and drug dealers. However, Deep Cover has so much more depth and intelligence than you would expect, and features one of the more compelling cinematic depictions of the difficult life of an undercover cop.
Deep Cover opens with a very harrowing sequence where a ten-year old boy witnesses his junkie father get shot and killed while attempting to rob a liquor store at Christmastime. Fast forward many years later and the young boy has grown up into Russell Stevens, Jr. (Laurence Fishburne), a police officer whose traumatic childhood experiences have made him vow never to touch drugs and alcohol. However, he receives a proposal from a DEA agent named Gerald Carver (Charles Martin Smith), who offers him the chance to assume a new identity as “John Q. Hull” and go deep undercover for a major sting operation that will bring down some of the biggest drug suppliers in America. Hull completely disappears into his new life as a drug dealer and eventually builds up so much street cred that he winds up coming into contact with an attorney named David Jason (Jeff Goldblum), who also happens to be the drug trafficker for a major drug kingpin named Felix Barbosa (Gregory Sierra). Of course, many complications arise. In spite of his intense personal hatred of drugs, Hull is forced to deal drugs to many people (including children) in order to maintain his cover and no points for guessing that he will eventually break his vow never to use drugs himself. He is constantly hounded by a morally righteous vice cop named Taft (Clarence Williams III), who never fails to remind him about all the damage he is causing to people with his drug dealing. Hull also becomes romantically involved with a drug launderer named Betty McCutheon (Victoria Dillard) and develops a genuine friendship with Jason, who wants to branch out on his own and make Hull his drug distribution partner. Hull is forced to witness and do so many bad things that he gets to the point where he starts wondering if the life of a drug dealer was the life he was meant for all along.
Like I stated earlier, Deep Cover probably sounds as generic and by-the-numbers as you can get on paper, as this type of storyline has been covered before in dozens of other movies. No film has ever been made about an undercover cop participating in an operation that goes completely smoothly, with the cop simply finishing his assignment, arresting the bad guys and going home. It’s inevitable that Hull will develop a bond with the criminals he’s supposed to be bringing down and become so immersed in his cover that he never wants to leave it. However, Deep Cover does not have that feeling of predictability at all while you’re watching it and still manages to surprise you by going in some very unexpected directions. This is not an action movie where the hero will just shoot a bunch of bad guys without batting an eye, but actually has to deal with the consequences and psychological guilt of his actions. After being a respected character actor and supporting player for many years, this was Laurence Fishburne’s first official leading role (and it also marked the last time he would be billed as “Larry Fishburne”) and he knocks it out of the park as John Q. Hull, creating a character you never stop sympathizing with and caring about even when he crosses the line. The film also features quite a surprising performance from Jeff Goldblum, who has always been accused of being unable to play characters who are not quirky intellectual nerds. While there are some of those elements in the character of David Jason, Goldblum also does a convincing job of turning Jason into a dangerous individual who can become quite violent and unstable once he becomes greedy with power. The scene where Jason grows unhinged and decides to get sadistic revenge against Felix Barbosa is a standout.
Deep Cover was directed by Bill Duke, a character actor who appeared in quite a few popular action films, such as Commando and Predator. After doing a lot of directing on television throughout the 1980s, Duke finally graduated to directing features and he does a very convincing job at depicting an underworld where drugs are the norm, a world which can seem quite tantalizing and glamorous one hand, but absolutely harrowing and destructive on the other. Along with Michael Tolkin, the film was also co-written by Henry Bean, who would go on to write and direct the acclaimed Ryan Gosling film, The Believer. Their screenplay does a stellar job at offering a fresh perspective of familiar material, with consistently intelligent dialogue and well-rounded characters, and even manages to deliver a few messages about the hypocrisy of America’s war on drugs without becoming preachy. Even the film’s less sympathetic characters are given their moments of humanity, such as when the arrogant DEA agent Carver delivers a moving, well-written monologue about crack babies. Of course, the most interesting element of the film is watching the relationship between Hull and Jason unfold, leaving the viewer in suspense about whether or not Hull is going to succumb to the wealth and power of the drug lifestyle and cross over to the other side. In the end, the movie is not about whether the good guy will defeat the bad guy, but whether or not he will make the correct moral choices. Despite garnering a lot of favourable reviews upon its initial release, Deep Cover did not do very well at the box office and is pretty much forgotten about today. Since the original trailer made the film look like your standard urban crime thriller, it’s easy to see why viewers might not have been compelled to watch it. However, it still remains one of the more intelligent and thought-provoking cop thrillers I’ve ever seen and is well worth checking out. Incidentally, the hip-hop title song for the film, Dr. Dre’s “Deep Cover”, provides a bit of a “Before They Were Stars” moment as the original music video features the very first appearance of Snoop Dogg!