Deep Cover (1992): The best cop movie you never saw

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1992 was a relatively cool year for cinema. There were films of pure brilliance, such as Unforgiven, Reservoir DogsGlengarry Glen Ross, A Few Good Men The Crying Game, immensely fun trash like Death Becomes Her and The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, and then there was Ralph Bashki’s Cool World (whatever happened there). For me, one of the greatest films of that annum, as well as being one of the best thrillers I’ve seen in general, is a cult crime film about international drug trafficking. It’s intelligent, disturbing, chock full of sleek and catchy summer hip-hop & R&B hits, and has a subtle and effective undercurrent of gallows humour running through it. As the cherry on top, it also pairs Jeff Goldblum and Laurence Fishburne, and if you don’t like those guys, there’s patently something in your head that needs examining. Welcome to Deep Cover.

Fishburne stars as Russell Stevens, a police officer who witnessed his substance-abusing father being gunned down during a robbery at the age of 10. It was this event that spurred him into committing to a resolutely straight-edge lifestyle ever since. His name has recently been added to a shortlist of prospective candidates for an assignment engineered by Gerald Carver (Charles Martin Smith), an unpleasantly glib Special Agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Carver is on a mission to destabilise the criminal organisation that provides the largest importation of narcotics up and down the West Coast of the U.S., and he needs a trustworthy, street-smart cop to go balls deep undercover and work their way up the ranks.

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The drug ring’s pecking order, and Stevens’ targets from the entry-level, are Hector Guzman, an immensely powerful and shady South American diplomat, his nephew Anton Gallegos who is the don of the operation Stateside, and Felix Barbossa, Gallegos’ underboss who is responsible for supplying their product to street dealers. Plotting himself up in a grotty L.A. apartment, Stevens adopts the alias of John Hull and begins showing his face around all of the grimiest, scum-ridden dive bars and back alleys of the city selling the cocaine that Carver supplies him with. At one point, Stevens’ narration laments that he is ”supposed to be making a difference, but here I was selling drugs to kids & pregnant women”. It’s painful to watch a genuinely conscionable man struggle with what is supposedly a noble crusade, while his immediate superior sees all of the contingent victims of their sting operation as mere details.

After a succession of some very close calls with law enforcement (he cannot reveal his true identity to ANYBODY, which is fun), high-as-a-kite turncoats and truly psychotic rival dealers, Stevens/Hull finally makes contact with Felix Barbossa. Having impressed the mobster, he is partnered with Barbossa’s slick, corrupt-as-all-hell lawyer David Jason, the man who deals with the organisation’s legal hot water and facilitates easier product distribution and laundering of their ill-gotten gains. In one of his greatest performances, Jeff Goldblum infuses this oily, semi-sociopathic white-collar criminal with all of his beloved idiosyncrasies, creating a weirdly likeable scumbag who we should probably view with contempt were it not for his powerful, off-kilter charisma. Jason makes me think of what Dennis Peck from Internal Affairs would be like if he were a lawyer who was a bit more empathetic and riddled with neuroses.

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The two form an unlikely rapport and eventually very close bond, Russell/John providing muscle for David as he conducts business, and they both start to get big ideas when David spills the beans about a new synthetic cocaine-like substance he is hoping to strike it rich with. The deeper our principal hero goes, the more psychologically entrenched he becomes in a world of heartless, capricious lunatics, double-crosses and corruption in unpredictable corners. As he juggles this dangerous new life with constantly updating the callous and unreasonable Agent Carver, Russell/John’s conscience is further beleaguered upon making contact with Detective Taft (the ever-excellent Clarence Williams III), a devoutly Christian officer of the LAPD Narcotics Division who arrests him one evening. While he is unaware of his true identity, Detective Taft immediately notices that there is something different about the young man, that he possesses a sense of introspection and heart, in stark contrast to the majority of the vicious and greedy dope peddlers that he cuffs up each night. Taft keeps a constant eye on Russell/John as a matter of duty, but he also comes to develop an almost fatherly affection for him, imploring him to throw himself into his better nature and do something good with his existence. Taft is essentially the angel on his shoulder, while David is the veritable devil.

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With comprehensive sources of danger ever closing in on him, Russell/John must act consistently and fast to ensure the success of his assignment, and to also protect those he has come to care for from harm. He has gotten in too deep this time, David becoming a genuine friend, Taft representing a morally fortified force of reason that he ultimately needs, and prickly, dryly flirtatious sexual tension with money launderer Betty (Victoria Dillard) developing into a poignant romance. Nobody can be trusted, no real end is in sight, and he comes to suspect that he just might be some kind of patsy in a far wider, malevolent conspiracy. The stress and guilt also attack his willpower to maintain lifelong sobriety, and while many films have wrung the daylights out of the ‘they’ll never be the same again’ trope for this sort of tale, the anticipation for resolution here is particularly nerve-wracking and devastating.

With a tight and punchy script courtesy of brilliant screenwriters Michael Tolkin and Henry Bean, the sharp dialogue and almost frighteningly believable performances are heavily bolstered by the kinetic, atmospheric direction of Bill Duke. Most people probably wouldn’t think of Fishburne & Goldblum as an ideal lead pairing, but their chemistry here is the stuff of magic. Goldblum is perfect as the yuppie criminal in way over his head, and his distinctive, eccentric delivery provides occasional deadpan comic relief in an otherwise serious and threatening picture. Fishburne’s iconic demeanour of the broodingly intelligent everyman seems completely at odds with Goldblum superficially, and the latter certainly does annoy the former more than once. It is their mutual recognition of the other’s redeeming features and intelligence, coupled with their contempt for the brutal, unfeeling and openly racist old guard of their criminal milieu that ultimately overrides their differences, going a long way to forging a profound partnership. The film provides a lot of blunt and epigrammatic commentary on race relations as well, Agent Carver being introduced as he is interviewing a group of black police officers in nauseatingly condescending and racially-charged sessions. The largely Latin American members of the focal drug ring display contempt for Russell/John and David, who are respectively black and Jewish, despite the fact that they would have arguably had their own share of shit to eat courtesy of WASPs like Carver. Twisted ethnic pride combined with capitalistic greed produces a maelstrom of ugly, hate-filled seediness where there are ultimately no winners.

With a splendid soundtrack, featuring the title song by Dr Dre & Snoop Dogg and also a running motif of ‘Love or Lust’ by Jewell (a very solid and catchy R&B number with an ironically fitting summertime vibe), Deep Cover is sobering and shocking without ever feeling lurid. It binds a spell more than it ‘entertains’ in any conventional sense of the term, hitting heavily on hard truths about the war on drugs, socioeconomic injustice, racism and corruption. The performances of Fishburne & Goldblum are of career-best quality, with caustic humour and lively developments making the film a tough-minded experience as opposed to one where you abandon every vestige of hope. It’s got a loving cadre of fans, but the film still remains horrendously underrated and little-seen in the grand scheme of things. Recommended more highly than average.

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