Deep Cover (VHS, 1992)

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The usual undercover-cop dilemmas plus some

Jul 26, 2012
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Fishburne, Goldblum, Smith; Bazelli; point(s)

Cons:Dillard, that Goldblum and Duke haven't done more work this good

The Bottom Line: The generic look is outstanding, and there is more going on in terms of character and point


Although there have been many representations of undercover cops since 1992 and even more showing the futility of the “War on Drugs,” “Deep Cover,” directed by Bill Duke (who had directed the screen adaptation of Chester Himes’s A Rage in Harlem the year before) remains one of the best. In addition to its qualities, it is also of interest as the first movie in which Laurence Fishburne (III) received top billing (and the last in which he was billed as “Larry”). He was the de facto star of “Cornbread, Earl and Me” (1975) and “Boyz n the Hood” (1991).

Fishburne plays a Cincinatti beat cop named Russell Stevens Jr., who goes under cover under the direction of an ambitiuous federal agent Carver (Charles Martin Smith) in Los Angeles as “John Q. Hull.” The goal is to take down those high up in the California crack cartel. The first link in the chain is a greedy but cowardly lawyer, David Jason, played by Jeff Goldblum. John proves an extremely adept player in the drug/violence game, helping David go up against the mid-level sadistic supplier Felix Barbosa (Gregory Sierra) and then against the higher level and vicious (in different ways than Barbosa Gallegos (Arthur Mendoza). Many people die and there is an unusual car chase in which David gets to act out in an extended revenge sequence (while John drives and Jason’s money-launder for whom John has developed feelings, Betty (Victoria Dillard), cowers).

Russell/John finds being a drug-dealer easier than being a cop was and wonders whether he is a cop playing a drug-dea;er or a drug-dealer playing a cop. And having moved a lot of product and killed some people, he is not willing to be played by US foreign policy (policy that fights a “war on drugs” when it is convenient, acquiesces to it when other matters of global (or at least hemispheric) strategy make protecting the most powerful of the drug lords, Guzman (René Assa) expedient).

Russell/John agonizes about moral issues, which are of no concern to Carver or to David Jason. Fishburne is very intense, resisting being corrupted by the money (and emotional/sexual involvement with a criminal) and opportunities to vent rage (of which he has a considerable accumulation dating back at least to Yuletide 1972 in Cleveland when his drug-abusing father was shot in front of him—the film opened with that).

Though David Jason has less far to fall into corruption than Russell, there is more character development in his part and Jeff Goldblum seized on the transformation from timidity to homicidal with great avidity. As far as I can remember (and there are many movies in which Goldblum appeared that I haven’t seen), Goldblum’s performance here is the most interesting and impressive one ever.

When Fishburne and Goldblum are both on screen the movie sizzles, as also when Fishburne and Smith or Fishman and any of the drug lords interact. The mandatory romance has some plot connection, but mostly slows the movie down. Dillard and Fishburne didn’t have any particular chemistry (contrast Fishburne and Angela Bassett in “What’s Love Got To Do With It” soon thereafter!) and Dillard’s part is very underwritten (maybe there was more that was cut because she is so wooden?). (I was also distracted by the mask John wants to buy in the African tribal art store that she runs as part of her money-laundering through Africa. Everything I see on display in the store is African, but the mask John tries to buy is Indonesian, I’m 99 % certain.)

There is graphic violence, very softcore sex, some spectacular acting(-out), and a strong indictment of the US government’s domestic and foreign activities, the “war on drugs,” which had demonstrably shown itself to do more harm than good already in 1992, in particular. What has the look of a “blaxpolitation” movie, and a top-rate “neo-noir” is also a “paranoid thriller” — and a showcase for Laurence “Larry” Fishburne and Jeff Goldblum. And I should laud the cinematography of Bojan Bazelli (The King of New York, Kalifornia, Hairspray), too.

There are no bonus features. That and the Dillard character make me round a 4.5-star rating for the movie down to a 4-star rating for the DVD, though it is tempting to round up as a means of inspiring others to check it out.

©2012, Stephen O. Murray

I've been going back to movies with Laurence Fishburne that I hadn't seen since being very impressed by his one-man show "Thurgood" (Marshall); I was lucky enough to get tickets to see its Kennedy Center opening night:

Cornbread, Earl and Me (1975)
A Rumor of War (1980)
School Daze (1988)
King of New York (1990)
Bad Company (1995)
Five Fingers (2006)
Thurgood (2011)

(Francis Ford Coppola cast the young Fishburne in four movies: first and most memorably in "Apocalypse Now," also "Rumble Fish," "Cotton Club," and "Garden of Stone." Fishburne has appeared as Dr. Raymond Langston in various CSI series and once upon a time (the late-1980s) was Cowboy Curtis on "Pee-wee's Playhouse.")


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