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Deep Cover

Directed by Bill Duke. Starring Larry Fishburne, Jeff Goldblum, Victoria Dillard, Charles Martin Smith, Clarence Williams Iii, Gregory Sierra, Sydney Lassick. (1992, R, 107 min.)

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 24, 1992

Been playing this one over in my head for a couple days now and I can't figure out if I liked it more than I remembered, or less. It's that kind of movie. Smart and stylish, it also has scenes of crackling violence and dramaturgy that oftentimes strains to work but, on the whole, Deep Cover is engaging, thoughtful and inventive. Bearing more than a little in common with last season's undercover narc movie, Rush, Deep Cover also looks at the grey netherworld where right and wrong function less as abstract constructs and more as survivalist guideposts. Using the, by now, familiar strategy of sending a cop undercover amongst the drug scum, Deep Cover looks at that thin line that separates those who enforce the law and those who deviate from its strictures. Everyone's hooked on something. Deep Cover uses the routines of this morality play to offer twists and insights into our conventional wisdom. Here the cops are black and the criminals white, the “good guys” push drugs to protect their cover, and the federal “big boys” play a fast and loose game in which shifting international allegiances are less determined by drug fighting objectives than simple butt covering. Deep Cover opens with Fishburne's voiceover, a commentary that continues throughout. His character, John Q. Hull, shows us how, as a 10-year-old boy, he witnessed the violent death of his junkie father and his subsequent commitment to law enforcement. Tapped by a smarmy D.E.A. chief (Smith) to go deep cover and lay the groundwork for nailing a top Latin American druglord, Hull slowly allows himself to get sucked into the criminal life. Here he pairs up with lawyer-turned-white-collar-criminal, David Jason (Goldblum) who has grandiose dreams of moving from small-time player into big-time distributor. The performances are so much of what makes this movie work: from Fishburne's masterfully controlled simmer to Goldblum's part comic, part reptilian characterization to the slew of skillful secondary players like Williams (Lincoln from the Mod Squad, probably our culture's first portrayal of a black undercover cop), Smith, Dillard, Sierra and Lassick. Director Duke (A Rage in Harlem and countless TV work) rivets our attention with his tightly framed shots and crisp editing that intelligently revives that bygone tradition of jump cuts (though they confusingly disappear completely midway through the movie). The stylized camerawork of Bojan Bazelli (The Rapture, The King of New York) should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his work. And the script by Michael Tolkin (The Player, The Rapture) and Henry Bean (Internal Affairs) is almost too sharp for its own good (at times, conversations lapse into poetic riffs and characters make jarringly erudite references). But then this whole moral maze leads to a fitting conclusion in which Hull's voiceover tosses the weight of the rhetoric back to the viewer.
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