While movie star-studded prestige films like Traffic (2000) tackle the war on drugs on an ambitious scale, sometimes it takes a slick B-movie like Deep Cover (1992) to get right to the heart of the issue. Directed by veteran character actor and filmmaker Bill Duke, the film attempted to capitalize on the success of edgy urban films like New Jack City (1991) and shed light on how drug addiction and drug dealing was destroying African American neighborhoods in major cities throughout the United States. Deep Cover dares to be different by showing how flawed and corrupt law enforcement is in dealing with the drug problem, following the paper trail all the way up the ladder to the upper echelons of our government, all the while delivering the requisite thrills of the police thriller. The end result is a B-movie with a brain.
The film’s set-up is an old chestnut: Russell Stevens, Jr. (Laurence Fishburne) is a Cincinnati police officer recruited by a smug bureaucrat named Carver (Charles Martin Smith) to go undercover and stay under for a prolonged period of time, becoming a drug dealer in order to set up and bust other dealers. The key is that Russell must deeply immerse himself in the role in order to survive because other officers failed when they tried to go back to their regular lives and blew their cover on the street. Carver sells the gig to Russell by telling him, “all your faults will become virtues.” Russell won’t blow his cover because he exhibits antisocial tendencies and has no family. When he was a child, Russell saw his father (Glynn Turman) die before his very eyes, gunned down after robbing a liquor store. Duke captures this flashback in rather lurid fashion as the gunshot that ends the father’s life splashes his blood all over the passenger window of the car his boy watches helplessly from. To further hammer the point home, Duke includes a shot of the dying father giving his son blood-soaked money.
Russell is sent to Los Angeles and tasked with the mission to knock out the big drug network. Via Carver, the film lays out the drug hierarchy in the U.S. in fascinating detail. Russell’s target is Felix Barbosa (Gregory Sierra), the guy who supplies the street level dealers. Above him is Anton Gallegos, the top importer on the west coast, responsible for 40% of the drugs in L.A. He is able to do so because of his uncle, Hector Guzman, a Latin-American politician and “a self-promoting duplicitous greaseball,” according to Carver. Russell starts off as a small-time dealer and soon finds a way in to Barbosa through a man named Eddie (played with wonderful twitchy desperation by Roger Guenveur Smith), a “crazy, good-natured, desperate asshole with a life expectancy of about a half an hour.” Through Eddie, Russell meets and befriends David Jason (Jeff Goldblum), an uptight upper class attorney that moonlights as a dealer and gets his drugs directly from Barbosa but dreams of bankrolling his own designer drug. Russell also crosses paths with an upstanding veteran cop by the name of Taft (Clarence Williams III), a righteous man that makes it his life’s mission to take the drug dealer down.
Deep Cover started as a collaboration between producer-writer Henry Bean and producer Pierre David. They had worked together previously on the police corruption thriller Internal Affairs (1990). The two men envisioned the project as a fairly standard crime thriller about an undercover cop. However, former Paramount Pictures production executive Gary Lucchesi suggested that they revise their protagonist to be African-American because, at the time, the studio was impressed with the success of Spike Lee’s films. Bean liked the idea and felt that the “details of blackness gave the character a particularity and resonance that it otherwise didn’t have.”
Screenwriter Michael Tolkin was brought in to do the first draft with Bean taking over subsequent revisions. However, Bean ran into problems when it came to writing dialogue reflecting how African-Americans felt about “somebody like the Goldblum character with his assumptions of middle-class privilege.” Once Duke and the actors came on board, they helped with these aspects of the screenplay. When the revised script was delivered to Paramount in the winter of 1990, the studio passed and placed the project in turnaround.
Bean and David took the script to every major studio and were turned down by them all. Some executives suggested that the lead role be re-written with a white person in mind. Then, New Jack City (1991) had a strong opening in March 1991 and New Line Cinema, who has also passed on Deep Cover, reconsidered. The studio felt that if the project were also given a modestly low budget (below $8 million), there would be relatively little risk and the potential for high returns. Then, John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood (1991) came out and was successful enough that New Line saw the same kind of crossover potential for Deep Cover.
Deep Cover was filmed in the fall of 1991 in order to capitalize on the success of Boyz N the Hood which was made for $6 million and went on to gross approximately $58 million. It also helped other African-American filmmakers get their films made, like Matty Rich’s Straight Out of Brooklyn (1991), Ernest Dickerson’s Juice (1992), and Mario Van Peeble’s New Jack City. At the time, Bill Duke said that he was not interested in making “’black’ movies. I’m interested in making movies that reflect reality as I perceive it.” He got his start acting in popular films like Commando (1985) and Predator (1987) and cut his teeth directing episodes of television programs as diverse as Cagney & Lacey, Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice. He was one of the first directors considered and he liked the script and its protagonist. Duke and Bean wanted the film to appeal to a mainstream audience and cast as multiracial as possible despite resistance from the studio who pushed for African-American actors.
The lead role was first offered to Denzel Washington, who turned it down, and then to Wesley Snipes and Laurence Fishburne. The latter had just come off Boyz N the Hood and was the veteran of more than 20 films. Duke liked the actor and felt that he could play “somebody who the audience could not only identify with but also believe in.” Fishburne saw his character in the tradition of Al Pacino in Serpico (1973) or Andy Garcia in Internal Affairs and was attracted to the notion that it “offered me wider psychological possibilities to play than a lot of the parts that I’ve been offered in the past.” He also saw the film as one that “offers what I hope can be a role model for black youth who have been bombarded with negative images for so long.” To research for the role and to bond with co-star Jeff Goldblum, Fishburne rode around in a Los Angeles Police Department squad car that was unexpectedly called to a homicide.
Russell narrates his own story with that great, deep-sounding melodical voice of Laurence Fishburne’s, delivered without emotion. At times, it’s almost like he’s rapping the voiceover narration which begins, “So gather round as I run it down and unravel my pedigree.” Another gem: “The great thing about life on the street is you know how it’s going to be. It’s always the same. It’s always getting worse.” Deep Cover re-imagines hard-boiled noir narration as a rap. Naturally, Russell breaks the golden rule of drug dealing as established in Scarface (1983): don’t get high on your own supply. He starts to take bigger and bigger risks including interfering in an important drug bust. Fishburne does an excellent job of showing his character losing himself in his drug dealing persona. Once he kills a rival dealer, it’s a short journey to doing drugs. Russell soon becomes seduced by the lifestyle and does what he we swore he would never do: be like his father. Russell’s epiphany comes when he realizes that everything he’s doing, all the undercover work, has been for nothing. His disillusionment provokes an indulgence in all the vices he swore he would never do. However, Russell never loses control completely. He’s too smart for that. Fishburne is a gifted actor and has no problem conveying his character’s intelligence.
Jeff Goldblum has built a career on playing quirky characters in films as diverse as The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (1984) and Into the Night (1985). With Deep Cover, he showed some serious dramatic chops. David starts off as one of the actor’s freewheeling characters who are always with a quip at the ready but he takes a dramatic turn in a scene where Barbosa puts him in his place. Afterwards, at home, he tells his wife that Barbosa doesn’t respect him and his eyes seem on the verge of welling up with tears. His wife tells him that he has a loving family and what more does he want. Duke cuts to a shot of an eerily malevolent-looking David staring off into space and he responds, “I want my cake and eat it, too.” Gone is the slick, cocky lawyer and all that’s left is an emotionless psychopath which Goldblum conveys with a lifeless look in his eyes. It’s impressive to see the transformation in his character once he goes off the deep end.
Gregory Sierra brings a considerable amount of intensity to his role as evident in the scene where he disciplines Eddie. The more nervous Eddie gets, the calmer Barbosa is, but there’s the undeniable menace in Sierra’s eyes. When the explosion of violence does come it’s brutal and ugly. Duke makes sure we see the reactions of horror in both David and Russell’s eyes. Duke gives Deep Cover occasional stylistic flourishes, like employing old school wipes to transition from scene to scene, or a shot of Russell walking the streets of L.A. with a series of staccato jump cuts that also move the camera closer in on him, all timed to atmospheric hip hop music. These stylistic touches give the film an energy and vitality that is exciting to watch.
Deep Cover received generally positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave it three-and-a-half stars out of four and praised the voice-over narration as "poetic and colorful. That's part of the process elevating the story from the mundane to the mythic.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin praised the "quietly commanding Larry Fishburne and the wry Jeff Goldblum, who make an interestingly offbeat team.” The Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, "What emerges is a powerhouse thriller full of surprises, original touches, and rare political lucidity.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, "The movie peels away every layer of hope, revealing a red-hot core of nihilistic despair. Fishburne, with his hair-trigger line readings and deadly reptilian gaze, conveys the controlled desperation of someone watching his own faith unravel. And Goldblum reveals a new dimension of comic rottishness.” However, the Washington Post’s Desson Howe wrote, “with Boyz N the Hood, Fishburne broke through to the big time. Here, his acting career takes a step backwards.”
If Deep Cover has one glaring flaw, it’s the wish fulfillment ending that wraps things up a little too neatly as Russell sticks it to The Man. It’s as if the filmmakers want their cake and eat it, too, to quote Goldblum’s character in the film. However, Duke’s film is not afraid to name names in the sense that it exposes the corruption that exists within our government. On the one hand, it wages an expensive and never-ending war on drugs and yet it develops relationships with politicians in other countries that can be the source for the drugs that are brought into the U.S. It’s a complicated relationship but one that Deep Cover attempts to make understandable by filtering it through the prism of a B-movie crime aesthetic.