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‘Deep Cover’

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 17, 1992


Bill Duke
Larry Fishburne;
Jeff Goldblum;
Victoria Dillard;
Charles Martin Smith;
Sidney Lassick;
Clarence Williams III;
Gregory Sierra
Under 17 restricted

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Larry Fishburne is clearly a star of the future, but "Deep Cover" won't be the vehicle. As he did with Furious Styles in "Boyz N the Hood," Fishburne plays, and cuts, a figure of great moral strength and integrity, but he's making waves in a shallow pool. Director Bill Duke's portrait of a neurotically driven cop who goes undercover in Los Angeles to chase Colombian drug dealers is so riddled with cliches that even Fishburne can't rescue it.

Fishburne plays Russell Stevens Jr., a straight-edge cop whose rigid moral code, defiance of authority and generally pathological personality make him a perfect candidate for undercover work, where such faults become virtues. Character motivation is set up by a Frank Capra in Hell flashback in which 10-year-old Russell sees his cocaine-addicted father shot down after robbing a liquor store on a snowy Christmas Eve, right after counseling his son, "Don't be like me. ... Don't ever do this." As a reminder, the son has kept a bloody wad of money taken from his dying father's hand.

Little wonder, then, that DEA agent Carver (Charles Martin Smith or Alfred E. Neuman -- you make the call) sees in Stevens the tough black cop he needs to infiltrate the drug subculture. Initially reluctant, Stevens -- now called John Q. Hull -- decides he can make a difference, but in the process his moral compass gets knocked askew. The distance between right and wrong, between good and evil, begins to close as Hull finds his new lifestyle both seductive and addictive.

To get to the Colombian cartel, Hull hooks up with drug middleman David Jason (a thickening Jeff Goldblum), a Jewish lawyer whose first instinct -- that Hull is a cop -- proves weaker than his baser instincts to make lots of money, live on the edge and insert himself into black culture. In fact, the lawyer, who has a dream house/wife/daughter, goes through his own metamorphosis, from cynical and eccentric outsider to manic and homicidal insider. Together, he and Hull plunge into a drug underworld where trust and honor are nonexistent and double crosses are merely a prelude to triple crosses.

Seeking funding for a new synthetic drug, Hull and Jason end up ripping off Felix Barbosa (a tensile Gregory Sierra), the cocaine king with political connections. Barbosa turns out to be something of a sadist: After pummeling an informant to death with a pool cue, he turns to Jason and says, "You ought to kill a man someday, David -- it's liberating." Not surprisingly, these words will come back to haunt him.

As will many others. This wouldn't be surprising in Steven Seagal or Charles Bronson films, but "Deep Cover" boasts some supposedly major talents: The script comes from Henry Bean ("Internal Affairs") and Michael Tolkin ("The Rapture," the upcoming "The Player"). Bill Duke is a veteran television director whose feature debut was last year's sharp "Rage in Harlem." Why, then, does so much of "Deep Cover" clumsily suggest something borrowed (an ending from "F/X") and something blown? Why the earnest public service announcements about crack babies, black-on-black crime, white power structure indifference etc., when the action speaks much louder than the words?

Obviously, much of "Deep Cover" is meant as a treatise on moral ambiguity and the paradox of trying to fight crime with crime. There's even a fair amount of religious imagery, notably in a Bible-toting, Scripture-spouting detective (Clarence Williams III) who becomes a not-too-subtle father figure to Hull and whose own mortality illuminates the fallen detective's path back to a higher ground.

Unfortunately, all this gets played out in clumsy fashion, including a political conspiracy/coverup finale that seems lifted from any number of films, but particularly Seagal's "Above the Law." the editing sometimes approximates a jumpy street rhythm, while the writing appropriates a tough urban wordfare that leads to equal-opportunity exploitation along racial and ethnic lines. Like the violence, the dialogue is sudden, angry, nasty and gritty.

While Fishburne is generally riveting -- his facial disguise is basically hardness layered onto strength -- and Goldblum is intriguing -- his wannabe urges are quite curious -- the film itself is only occasionally visceral. On the one hand, it's refreshing and commendable that a major film casts a black actor not only as a detective (rather than as a criminal), but in the lead role. On the other, "Deep Cover" too often aims for the moral high ground without bothering to get its feet out of the mud.

"Deep Cover" is rated R and contains scenes of graphic violence.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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