Deep Cover (1992)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #471


Number of Views: Three
Release Date: 22 January 1993 (UK)
Sub-Genre: Neo-Noir Thriller
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $16,639,799 (USA)
Running Time: 107 minutes
Director: Bill Duke
Producer: Pierre David, Henry Bean
Screenplay: Michael Tolkin, Henry Bean
Special Effects: Frank Ceglia
Cinematography: Bojan Bazelli
Score: Michel Colombier
Editing: John Carter
Studios: Image Organization, New Line Productions
Distributor: New Line Cinema
Stars: Laurence Fishburne, Jeff Goldblum, Victoria Dillard, Gregory Sierra, Clarence Williams III, Sydney Lassick, Kamala Lopez-Dawson, Roberto Luis Santana, Glynn Turman, Lira Angel, Roger Guenveur Smith, René Assa, Alex Colón, Joseph Ferro, Clifton Powell


Suggested Audio Candy

[1] Michel Colombier “Main Theme”

[2] Michel Colombier “Deep Cover”


I always wanted to go deep, deep undercover. Axel Foley made it seem so appealing and wore his most impish grin as he prepared to crack the case from the inside. While undoubtedly Eddie Murphy owned the monopoly on cunning disguises and idiosyncratic alter egos, there was another brother showing up on my radar who possessed every last bit of his swagger and a little more besides. This cool collected cat was Laurence Fishburne. Back then he was simply known as Larry, but his performance here was so packed with slow burning dynamite that he graduated overnight and Sir Laurence was born. Forget Brave Sir Robin, he had squat on Fishburne.


Having stolen every scene he featured in as Dap in Spike Lee’s grossly under-appreciated ebony chorus line, School Daze, and then smashing it a second time as Furious Styles in John Singleton’s seminal coming-of-age movie, Boyz n The Hood, I was all in way before the flop was ever necessitated. Meanwhile, director Bill Duke was also more than familiar. To most he was Mac in Predator and there’s no shame in that kind of remembrance. However, a year previous to Deep Cover, A Rage in Harlem had offered provided all the evidence I needed that he was right to don the director’s seat and left Harlem Nights well and truly in the shadows. For the record, Murphy himself directed that.


Crime thrillers were ten a penny at the time and there was seemingly nothing about Deep Cover to suggest any great trends being bucked. That is, until Duke assigned Fishburne a partner in crime. I’d fight a man to the bloody death for having a crossed word to spare for Jeff Goldblum. If Fishburne was black and proud through to the marrow, then this man was lily-white and about as street as a newborn fawn. And similarly gangly too. It was a match made in heaven; Fishburne had the scowl, the look of steel, the ice running through his veins. Goldblum would no doubt provide the clown shoes and we’d love him all the more just for having the gall to tag along. Suddenly, Duke’s slick thriller was looking like a mighty tidy proposition.


Barely a minute in and with Michel Colombier’s funky fresh theme still ringing in my ears, I already knew that morality was going to play a key role. On Christmas day 1972 in the streets of Cleveland, young Russell Stevens Jr. has to watch on mortified after Russell Stevens Sr. is gunned down before his very eyes. To be fair, the alcoholic pops has just robbed a liquor store and probably has enough barbiturates flowing through his veins to floor a burly buffalo. But, for one of such tender years,that’s quite a bitter pill to swallow. Although not the model father by a long chalk, he does have some wise words for his only boy before signing off for the great crack house in the sky. “Don’t end up like me”. No shit dad.


“What’s the difference between a black man and a nigger?”

We are then whisked forward twenty years to Cincinnati, where DEA Special Agent Gerald Carver (Charles Martin Smith) is looking for a brother down enough to go undercover in a major sting operation. Officer Stevens coolly accepts the terms and soon after John Hull is born. His mission is clear although the parameters are slightly more hazy. He must infiltrate the inner city drug ring and work his way through the ranks until he reaches the kingpin. Somehow, inconceivably, he is charged with getting the most influential criminal mastermind in circulation to want to touch his junk. No small feat you may think. Not for Fishburne it isn’t.


“Fuck you faggot, ain’t had pussy since pussy had you.”

This sly motherfucker does precisely that and, after a little time on the streets peddling narcotics to kids barely old enough to pull their dicks, he’s soon grabbing attention from all angles. One set of eyes have him in their sights in no time and these gloriously bulging peepers belong to self-appointed attorney David Jason (Goldblum), who moonlights as a drug trafficker when not getting guilty parties off the hook in state court. Jason is wary at first but it isn’t long before the wing of tenuous hospitality extends and suddenly that old denim jacket is history.


From sly motherfucker to suave motherfucker in a few basic steps, Hull has found himself an opening at the top table and there ain’t a man alive who will stop him grabbing that seat.


This is where it all becomes about conscience. Agent Carver has clearly taken leave of his and his terms and conditions become increasingly perplexing as the plot thickens. Hull on the other hand, is aware of every last one of his actions but aware that he won’t catch his man unless he stoops to a similarly subterranean level. If this involves whacking someone in cold blood, then so be it. And should that bag of coke mysteriously split, then surely there can be no harm in faintly bending his lifelong vow of sobriety. The scene where he does so is truly affecting and Fishburne shows both high and low beautifully as a solitary tear freezes on his right cheek and he wipes the devil’s dandruff from his nostril rim.


“Boys, is this some type of male bonding thing? Because you can take it outside. You’re blowing my high.”

As well as a gram of dope, he’s also got that baby batter on his brain. Outside of her nine to five, Local art dealer Betty McCutcheon (Victoria Dillard) is also busy laundering Jason’s drug money and Hull remembers that with every conscience comes a free libido to test its validity. McCutcheon presents a challenge to Hull and, right now, he’s in the kind of mood to never shirk one of those. Behind her mask of disgust, her gusset is already filling with cloying honey, and soon after it is time for our montage.


“A man has two things in this world: his word and his balls. Or is that three things?”

Goldblum is on fine form as is the generally unswerving case. Quite how nobody ever paired him up with James Woods for a buddy cop thriller is anyone’s guess as few can mesh edgy and confident so effortlessly. Here, he’s a suitably twitchy greed warrior but also has that brash Seth Brundle thing going on. There will be no vomiting on wristwatches but, should push come to shove, then he’s more than willing to bust a cap or three. His is the perfect foil for Fishburne and we are provided a double act which we don’t wish to see dissolve.



Perhaps the most critical pawn in the game is devoutly religious L.A.P.D. Narcotics Detective Taft (Clarence Williams III). He has been staking Hull out from the start and presents his only shot at salvation. The interactions between the two men call to mind the father and son chats which he so sadly missed during his adolescence and the preacher is every bit the figure behind which true redemption lays. Hull knows it only too well but he’s in too deep already and the empire is growing with haste. Moreover, he has the kingpin in his sights, and has already been double-crossed by those supposedly paying his salary. It’s a fascinating dynamic and lends Deep Cover a great deal of moral ground to traverse.


Also tugging on his heart-strings is crack addict Belinda Chacón (Kamala Lopez-Dawson), a single mom with a boy around the same age that he was when he lost his role-model. It pains Hull that he hasn’t got the time in his hectic schedule to alleviate her worries and it jabs even more once he discovers that he has left it too late. Poor man has the weight of the world on his shoulders and his partner jabbering in his ear the whole time. The back and forth dialogue between the two is incalculable and the screenplay from Henry Bean and Michael Tolkin (who also wrote Robert Altman’s The Player) is CB4 without the B.


“We took eleven million in drug profits out of the van. The money doesn’t know where it comes from, but I do. If I keep it, I’m a criminal. If I give it to the government, I’m a fool. If I try and do some good with it, maybe it just makes things worse. Either way, I’ll probably just wind up getting myself in more trouble. It’s an impossible choice, but in a way, we all have to make it. What would you do?”

The conclusion is smart and leaves us with one final moral conundrum. Would we have done any different in Hull’s shoes? Duke leaves that one hanging as the suspension hits the tarmac one final time and Deep Cover drives-by to its absolution. Not only have we been thoroughly gripped for 107 straight, but we have also been to church. That’s what elevates Duke’s film above the other crime thrillers doing the rounds in the early nineties. I love Abel Ferrara’s King of New York just as much as the next man but I love Deep Cover even more. How’s that for a full-hearted recommendation.


Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

Read Boyz ‘n The Hood Appraisal

Read The Fly Appraisal

Read Do The Right Thing Appraisal

Read The Matrix Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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