Bill Duke directed Deep Cover as if he thought he’d never get to make another film. He adopts a number of stylish techniques; fancy wipes; and camera tricks. Every scene is an excuse to try out a new cinematic toy. Most of these fall flat, distracting rather than enhancing.
At its heart Deep Cover wants to be a neo noir. Film Noir often dealt with normal people communing with the underworld. Deep Cover’s plot of a DEA undercover officer becoming seduced by the allure of drug culture isn’t too far a stretch.
Duke throws in a number of sequences that recall the classic noir period. Dispatches in smoke filled rooms lit only by photo projector. The Los Angeles setting that seems to burst into rain whenever the lead characters need to air their grievances. Tricks with light and shadow. All the pieces connected with hard-boiled narration. Enough of Deep Cover speaks in this language so that the less successful gimmicks don’t bring down the entire picture.
The protagonist at the core of Deep Cover, Russell Stevens (Laurence Fishburne) could be described as a sociopath. Taunted with racial epithets by a superior, Carver (Charles Martin Smith) he doesn’t flinch like his fellow black officers. He takes the abuse as a test and responds as if eager to win.
Carver correctly deduces that Russell’s lack of empathy and morals would make him ideal for deep undercover work. Carver wants to nab a vulnerable colonel of a Latin American drug distribution network. To achieve that Russell must become John Hull, a serious and sober drug dealer.
Russell/John proves adept. As his success grows, Carver implores him to enjoy the trappings of his new lifestyle. When Russell starts needing to move more drugs than the DEA can reasonably buy, Carver instructs to sell them on the street. “You’re a drug dealer. Deal drugs.”
The DEA may be interested in the Latin American network, but Russell finds himself becoming more closely aligned with David (Jeff Goldblum), a lawyer on the cartel’s payroll. David has designs on dealing synthetic drugs produced within the United States. The fellow cartel lieutenants sometimes humor, sometimes chide this ambition, but Russell is an immediate convert. Flash forward to the present day when oxycontin and fentanyl have conquered the drug market as legal synthetic substitutes for heroin and cocaine, and its hard to look at David’s and Russell’s plan as foolish.
Deep Cover is blessed by having a core of great acting talent. Laurence Fishburne was on the slow climb to greater stardom. Jeff Goldblum would jump superstardom just a year later as the most compelling actor in Jurassic Park. Both men are at this point fully committed and make quite a bit more out of the material than it deserves. Fishburne in particular grounds and balances when on screen or providing the wonderful exasperated narration. Goldblum goes full Goldblum for the most part. He probably was not the actor in mind for the role in a script that lays on the Jewish racial insults thick and mean but he still provides for a dynamic screen presence. Charles Martin Smith makes a good showing, self described as the all-knowing “God” with a smug self-confidence standing in for piety or grace. Clarence Thomas III does good work in a thin role as the last honest police officer. However the rest of the cast falls pretty flat.
This is a movie that calls for interesting heavies. Actors with the gravitas to sell an inhumane torture or could send up the camp. The fearsome Latin American drug lords come off as particularly uninspiring: pleading for mercy when one acts particularly violent.
Deep Cover was the rare film from the height of the Drug War made from the African American perspective. It viewed the period through the lens of Noriega: the US government encouraging drug trafficking in its own cities to help prop up a friendly regime in a banana republic. Viewed from this perspective, the African American community was getting attacked on both sides.
It doesn’t see a hard racism at play here. None of the characters give any drooling screeds against blacks. Instead everything at play is the result of a kind of soft racism, one that doesn’t see blacks as equal members of society, a pariah class to be exploited and left to ruin.