Friday, February 20, 2015


Like Judgment Night, Deep Cover is another early 90’s film that’s known more for the music than the actual movie (for those that don’t remember, the Deep Cover Soundtrack gave Snoop Dog & Death Row records a push before The Chronic album). I find this upsetting because Deep Cover is actually quite good and it doesn't belong in the same universe as Judgment Night. I think we all know the 90’s brought us an abundance of violent/hood/drug-related films that were both good & bad (New Jack City, Juice, South Central, Boyz N Tha Hood, King Of New York, Strapped, Menace To Society, etc). It got to the point where any American movie with a hip-hop soundtrack that involved Black people, guns, violence & the police got thrown in to the same generic category. Because of this, stuff like like Deep Cover, The Glass Shield & Clockers got unfairly placed in to the “hood/gangster” genre. I won’t deny that there are similarities between some of these films. Parts of King Of New York rubbed off on Deep Cover in terms of style, a lot of these movies share some of the same actors, the basic plot of Strapped is damn near identical to Deep Cover, and in all honesty, Deep Cover is almost like an unofficial sequel to New Jack City. While NJC was obviously more of a commercial success, I have to give the artistic edge to Deep Cover because the latter film makes you want to stay away from drugs all together. There isn’t a character like Nino Brown (NJC) that people look up to or find charming (I know it wasn’t Mario Van Peeple’s intention to make Nino Brown out to be a slightly likable character, but Wesley Snipes turned him in to a charismatic figure that people still quote today).

Bill Duke's directorial work focuses primarily on people of color (Dark Girls, A Rage In Harlem, A Prince Among Slaves, Hoodlum, etc). Actually, I've always wondered why he, along with Carl Franklin, Charles Burnett & Wendall B. Harris, weren't included on that famous New York Times cover highlighting Black filmmakers in the early 90's. While Duke's films are enjoyed by folks of all races, I have a hard time believing the average non-black movie goer can truly appreciate something like Dark Girls. And if I'm wrong then why wasn't it given any kind of a substantial theatrical release?
Deep Cover might be Bill Duke’s one truly universally accessible film in that it features more recognizable faces like Jeff Goldblum (in one of his greatest performances) and a post-Boyz N Tha Hood Laurence Fishburne (this was right around the time when he went from being billed as “Larry Fishburne” to “Laurence Fishburne”).

Clarence Williams in Tales From The Hood

Let’s also not forget the superb supporting cast. Besides Goldblum, Deep Cover features two more of modern cinema’s unique figures in the form of Clearance Williams III & Roger Guenveur Smith. Clearance Williams’ reputation as a quirky loose cannon goes without saying but if you need some examples, just watch him in Tales From The Hood, Half Baked & Sugar Hill. It’s a shame that he wasn’t used as a villain more in his prime (in Deep Cover he plays a police officer who kind of represents the protagonist’s conscience). Honestly, couldn’t you picture Clarence Williams as a psychotic villain in a early 90’s Steven Segal movie? I certainly could.
Some of you may not consider Roger Guenveur Smith to be as intense or edgy as I do, but just watch his performances in He Got Game or the final act of Eve’s Bayou and get back to me.

And I’m sorry but this guy’s presence, as the rival drug dealer “Ivy”, was criminally underrated. No other grown man could ever use the term “sissy” when addressing another man and actually make it work as an insult…

The character of Ivy is the type of lower-mid tier villain that could have easily been removed from Deep Cover, wordrobe & all, and placed in Robocop or a vintage Van Damme movie.

I feel like the only person missing from Deep Cover was the racially ambiguous post-Anthony Quinn/pre-Victor Argo Henry Silva. He could have easily played the role of “Barbosa” (not to take anything away from Gregory Sierra because he did a fine job). Silva had an edgy acting style that would have fit in perfectly with the rest of the Deep Cover cast (he would later go on to make up for this missed opportunity by playing the main crime boss in Ghost Dog).
Henry Silva

Ever since I was a boy I always sensed that something was a little “off” about the performances in Deep Cover. And when I say “off” I don’t mean that in a negative way. It’s not like the performances were bad. They were just…strange. Lines of dialogue were delivered with these weird inflections when it wasn’t really called for, some moments were beyond random (Roger Guenveur Smith’s “Eddie” frantically eating a popsicle while high off his ass) and the overall moodiness of the film felt like a light Miles Davis acid trip (see the African mask scene for an example of this). However some of the dialogue is pretty thought provoking & sharp:

Gerald Carver (Charles Martin Smith): Do you know the difference between a Black Man and a nigger?

Russell Stevens (Laurence Fishburne): The nigger is the one that would even answer that question.

(This was always one of my personal favorite exchanges from any movie. I’ve never been quite sure if Fishburne actually answered the question, thus making him a “nigger”, or if he side-stepped it and eloquently put Smith in his place)

Now that I’m older I’m of the theory that, because Deep Cover is partially about drugs, all the cast members in this movie were acting under the influence of some type of drug in an effort to really tap in to the movie. Naturally this would add an additional layer to Deep Cover in that the movie is already about a cop who assimilates into the role of a drug dealer and starts to play the part a little too well.
And I’m not talking about hard drugs like heroine or crack. I just think Fishburne, Goldblum, Williams and the rest of the cast were taking hits of laced marijuana in between takes. Drug use is a crapshoot when making cinema. Some of Martin Scorsese’s best work was done under the influence of cocaine while some of Richard Pryor’s worst performances, which all took place at the end of his career, were because of drugs.
But the final outcome with Deep Cover and it's alleged drug use (which is a crazy theory only I believe in) was a success in my opinion.

In the film, Laurence Fishburne plays “Russell Stevens” – a police officer recruited by the CIA to go undercover in an effort to help take down a Los Angeles drug trafficking operation (the CIA’s recruitment of Stevens in Deep Cover is similar to that of The Silence Of The Lambs when Clarice Starling is used by the CIA to help capture Buffalo Bill). As the title suggests, Stevens (who now goes under the alias: “John Hull”) gets in way too deep. While undercover he becomes romantically involved with one of the lower-level traffickers he’s supposed to be taking down and forms a strange bond/partnership with another trafficker in the form of “David Jason” (Jeff Goldblum). Even worse, Russell gets hooked on drugs which hits way too close to home for him (at the beginning of the movie we learn that Russell’s father was an addict and because of this, he vowed to never use drugs).

If you happen to watch Deep Cover after reading this, please note Jeff Goldblum’s slow transition from a crooked suburban defense attorney to a wannabe drug kingpin (if you still have a VCR, I highly suggest watching the VHS to retain all the grittiness). Fishburne’s transition from a straight-laced cop to a drug addicted undercover agent is also underrated (by the middle of the movie you start to forget he’s a cop). I’d also like to know if I’m the only person who thinks the acting in the final climax is absolutely batshit crazy for a conventional/studio film. Again, I mean that in a good way in the same way I think elements of Only God Forgives are equally batshit crazy. Deep Cover is a unique beast that stands out from all the other movies in the same genre. Instead of pointing the finger at addicts and low level drug dealers, Bill Duke shines a light on everyone from the CIA to the upper class drug dealers in the suburbs who are just as much a part of the drug machine as the dealers on the corner.

As much as I love rap music, I have to admit that it’s given some good films some bad reputations OR, it’s put some average/overrated movies on an undeserved pedestal (Scarface). I sometimes wonder if folks actually know characters like Tony Montana & Nino Brown aren’t good people and shouldn’t be idolized. We all know besides mafia folks like John Gotti and whatnot, Montana & Brown are two of the most referenced figures in modern rap lyrics when it comes to money & violence. I sometimes struggle with these movies myself because I get all caught up in how they make black people look. Some of these “urban” movies are pretty stupid but they have one or two really great qualities that trump the bad qualities. Take King Of New York. The older I get the more I kind of dislike Abel Ferrara’s cult classic. I started watching this last year to prep for the Cinema Of Abel Ferrara and I began to wonder if I was too old for this. But Laurence Fishburne’s performance kept my attention (*SPOILER ALERT* is it any coincidence that once his character is killed off, the movie starts to drag to an anti-climactic finale?) From Deep Cover’s promotional advertisements to its association with Death Row Records (one of the pinnacles of “Gangster Rap”) I can see how people unfamiliar with Bill Duke’s filmography would assume Deep Cover was just another run of the mill crime film, but I assure you that’s not the case and is worthy of a second chance/rediscovery.


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