Bill Duke is probably best known as an actor, even if you don’t know him by name. He played the chillingly badass Mac in Predator, and made an impression with supporting roles in Commando, The Limey and more recently Mandy. He’s had an impressive career as a director too though, making accomplished thrillers Hoodlum and A Rage In Harlem, and his best film, the neo-noir Deep Cover.
The film was originally conceived as a sequel to Mike Figgis’ Internal Affairs, but repurposed after the rise in popularity of black cinema in the early nineties, with films like New Jack City and Boyz N The Hood grabbing the attention of cinema audiences. However, Deep Cover is more than just a way to jump on a bandwagon. Laurence Fishburne gives a powerhouse performance as Stevens, a cop recruited by the DEA for an undercover assignment in the midst of big time drug dealers, making contact with Jeff Goldblum‘s smooth talking lawyer, who moonlights as the go-between for the cartel.
Nowadays, Fishburne has so completely reinvented himself as an elder statesman of cinema, that it’s easy to forget he could be a formidable leading man. He’s incredible here, giving an intense, raw performance as the conflicted undercover cop. His internal conflict is writ large on his face in his private moments, and he has an easy chemistry with Goldblum.
Goldblum is a strange casting choice. He’s initially slick and professional, but as the plot escalates he changes into a more erratic, sinister character that never completely fits. Being Goldblum he is always entertaining, (and disarmingly likeable) but his characterisation is so inconsistent that the final showdown proves pretty frustrating. A lot of this is due to the freewheeling nature of the film – he and Fishburne improvised a lot, which leads to some dynamic back and forth but also impacts the characterisation.
Charles Martin Smith and Clarence Williams III are also memorable as the two other representatives of law enforcement. Smith plays the abrasive DEA agent with just the right amount of cockiness and sleaze, and the dynamic between him and Fishburne is really compelling – Duke uses Smith’s diminutive height for some fun framing – Fishburne towers over him, yet Smith holds all the power. Williams is the hardline christian cop who tries to get Fishburne on the straight and narrow, and manages to imbue this quite strange character with real warmth and humanity.
This is the kind of straitlaced modern gangster drama that just isn’t possible in a post-Tarantino world. It’s an altogether drier, yet more innocent kind of film, but this is part of its charm. It’s not poe-faced or boring, but the absence of irony and pop culture references that are now commonplace make this feel more earnest. It’s overblown in places, and often tells when it should be showing – an awful lot of integral plot details happen offscreen, which is a shame, and prevent it from reaching particularly high heights. However Duke’s direction demonstrates a more straightforward, heartfelt kind of filmmaking than the cynical crime thrillers that were on the horizon. The whole film is infused with a very personal kind of lyricism that sets it apart from its contemporaries, with dialogue that references poetry and Iceberg Slim throughout.
Deep Cover is a film that both suffers and benefits from the period in which it was made. It’s a bit overwrought and old fashioned, (it’s hard to believe this is the same year Reservoir Dogs came out) but I’ll take this over the countless Tarantino imitators any day. What it lacks in subtlety it more than makes up for in raw intensity. This wears its themes on its sleeve and while sometimes this can be jarring, it’s a deeply personal creation that leaves a strong impression on the audience.
This director approved special edition from Criterion comes with a new interview with director Bill Duke; new conversations with film scholars Racquel J. Gates and Michael B. Gillespie, and scholar Claudrena N. Harold and professor Oliver Wang; a panel discussion featuring Duke and Fishburne. PLUS: An essay by Gillespie.
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