Deep Cover – #6 in the US (Apr. 17 – 19)
All-Time Domestic & Worldwide $16,639,799
Deep Cover is an underrated neo-noir hood masterpiece that is well worth seeking out.
Snoop Dogg was introduced to the mainstream through the title track of director and actor Bill Duke’s neo-noir outing in 1992. “Deep Cover” showed the essence of gangsta rap with Dre and Snoop coming together for a collaboration that has stood the test of time. The film itself would be a deep-cut in the hood genre for decades to come. The film has garnered new life thanks to The Criterion Collection’s release last year in July with a new restoration. That’s also where the magnificent art by Ngabo “El’Cesart” Desire used for the title card comes from. This is how I discovered it as well. Deep Cover is a wonderful gem that would be lost if not for the rediscovery.
Bill Duke is more well-known for being a character actor appearing in a bevy of films such as Commando, Predator, and Red Dragon. He also delivered the best line in another Criterion favorite, Menace II Society with “You know you done fucked up, right?” Duke behind the camera though goes on to deliver a heavy-hitting story that does deliver on its title premise. It also cements Laurence Fishburne (in his last credited appearance as Larry) was on the road to being a name for himself. Fishburne had already broken big with John Singleton’s masterpiece Boyz N the Hood in a supporting role. He takes the lead role in this film to showcase his talent against Jeff Goldblum. Goldblum had already been big for the past few years. Fishburne proves he could be at Goldblum’s level and stay with the best of them.
Russell Stevens, Jr. (Laurence Fishburne) is a new DEA Agent after serving time as a cop in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is tasked with being an undercover agent to take down drug lord Anton Gallegos in Los Angeles. With the new identity of John Hull, he buys cocaine from a drug dealer, only to be taken in by Detective Taft (Clarence Williams III). In a hearing for his action, the case gets dismissed due to David Jason (Jeff Goldblum), an attorney and drug runner for Gallegos. The team begins to fall in with one another to build an empire and garner the favor of Felix Barbossa (Gregory Sierra) as well as money launderer Betty McCutcheon (Victoria Dillard). Jason also wishes to take this new respect to push a more synthetic version of cocaine on the street. As Stevens continues his undercover stint partnering with Jason, it seems he might be getting too deep for his own good.
Deep Cover deserves all the reappraisal and rediscovery it is getting. Laurence Fishburne is magnificent throughout. Never at any point does he become an unreliable narrator. Rather, he is the guide on his journey and the consequences. He plays the role with perfection by having a careful meticulous balance between his undercover identity and his true self. His demeanor and view of the world are determined by the experience he garners in his tasks. It’s also influenced by the childhood trauma of seeing his drug-addict father die in front of him. He grows accustomed to the lifestyle, never losing sight of his main goal, but falling into the crime world.
Fishburne carries this no-nonsense gravitas to him that means business and revels in keeping cool under pressure. Fishburne is a magnificent actor and one of the very best in roles such as Morpheus in The Matrix (read last month’s MATRIX MADNESS series). Seeing him lead a film with a strong screen presence and command attention is worth watching the movie alone. His performance should be the textbook example of how to perform as an undercover cop in a film. It’s my favorite take on the uncover cop sub-genre for that reason alone.
Goldblum is a ruthless bastard in this movie as time goes on. Not seen in the film is the goofy Goldblum that the internet adores. This is Goldblum being a meticulous asshole with an air of suaveness. His character does not start too ruthless. When a significant turn happens, it’s all over from being a smooth criminal to an outright villain, more so than when he started. His chemistry with Fishburne is perfect with him as the leader and Fishburne taking his guidance. Their dynamic is wonderful throughout the film which makes all the tension all the more heightened.
Duke’s direction is also on par with other classics of the era. Duke captures the style of noir with cinematographer Bojan Bazelli in tow. Bazelli had also done cinematography on Abel Ferrera’s King of New York which also starred Fishburne. It captures the seediness of 1990s Los Angeles and Hollywood with drastic use of shadow with a rich mix of the vibrant colors of the time. It evokes the mood of a classic noir while giving the essence of the hood film coming into the formation. If Boyz cemented the foundations for hood movies of the 90s, then Juice and Deep Cover built around it. Menace II Society in 1993 would become the full form of it.
Duke also has the help of editor John Carter who helps nail a music video quality to certain aspects of the film. The opening titles alone slow the frames as someone lights a crack pipe. Later, when Stevens goes undercover, the frame zooms frame-by-frame in time with the drumbeat of the score. It’s a dynamic change and drastic on purpose to get a feel for the streets’ rhythm and beat as well as the slowness of high that may creep in. Carter would also edit on other hood classics of the decade such as Friday, Set It Off, and The Wood. Duke and Bazelli give life to a script by Michael Tolkin and Henry Bean who paint the ideal world with the dynamic characters. It could show a descent into the corruption of power, but subverts that expectation even as Stevens dives too deep. Tolkin also wrote the novel and screenplay for next week’s film The Player.
Deep Cover is an underrated classic of the 90s complete with a masterclass performance from Laurence Fishburne. It’s a hood classic of crime that stands on its own bringing a neo-noir spin into the subgenre. It’s a stand-out that I’m glad it has been getting a new lease on life because it is one of not only the best films of 1992 but of the entire decade.
Revue Rating: 5 out of 5 ★★★★★
Next week, it’s murder and mayhem served up as only Hollywood could tell it. It’s Robert Altman’s comeback in 1992 with The Player.