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Deep Cover


The last of the Larry (he was Laurence henceforth; I tend to think he was more interesting, performance-wise, when he was Larry). It’s always a relief when a movie you haven’t seen in an age – and it probably isn’t far off the full three decades since I last watched it – lives up to your recollection. Deep Cover’s nothing if not uneven, but its less satisfying elements tend to sit easily within director Bill Duke’s heightened stylistic approach (also still striking and impressive). Mostly, it represents a tour de force of juxtaposed performance dynamics from Larry Fishburne and Jeff Goldblum, the undercover cop and the white-collar lawyer respectively, to often mesmerising effect.

Fishburne gives the picture its grounding, and his voiceover narration as DEA Agent Russell Stevens Jr/John Hull has to count as one of cinema’s all-time best, perfectly moderated, brooding, moody, reflective, informative, considered, punctuated with Iceberg Slim lyrics for added poetic marbling (Bill Duke wanted to make a movie of Slim’s autobiography Pimp) and underlined by an absolute gem of a score from Michel Colombier. Visually, the picture is striking, with Duke keen to emphasise the excesses of this world. Buildings are bathed in reds (for blood: Duke used green for money) and Dutch angles offset any pretence at straight telling. He and Bojan Bazelli have also worked out a hugely effective stutter zoom that, combined with the Colombier score and Fishburne narration, creates a unique and distinctive mood for the piece, disorientating and utterly compelling.

And Duke populates his film with interesting, quirky performances, such that straight genre comparisons are deflected. Fishburne’s still young and wiry at this point, lending the proceedings an unfiltered immediacy that contrasts effectively with Goldblum’s fancy twirls and pirouettes; together, they have a lot of fun with the dialogue, much of it revolving around differences in race, class and status. Goldblum’s David Jason (not that one) is a Jewish lawyer with a wife and family who, for whatever reason, has got into bed with the West Coast’s largest drug importer (Anton Gallegos, whose uncle Hector Guzmán is a weighty South American politician, via underboss Felix Barbossa). 

Jason’s a pretender to the life, flirting with it like it’s a game and becoming ruffled when it bites back, whereas Stevens has inherent street smarts, having seen his addict father die in a liquor store robbery. He’s entirely unimpressed by David’s razzle, but the two click in terms of the trade, both needing each other. Nothing speaks louder than David’s immense leather jacket and slicked back hair, adopted after his blooding, as he assumes an appearance that doesn’t fully take.

David Jason: How come I like balling black chicks so much?

Russell Stevens Jr/ John Hull: I don’t know. Maybe you feel like you’re fucking a slave.

Notably, though, as Russell finesses his way up the ladder, it becomes clear David isn’t nearly as reliable as he believed, following the demise of Eddie (Roger Guenveur Smith, memorably attempting to have at Barbossa with a table fork before being summarily beaten to death with a pool cue), despite or because of his presumptive status; suffering indignities both verbal (Barbossa offering racial slurs) and physical (a particularly nasty game of slaps), David rises to the challenge of offing the boss (“You know, Felix was right. He said I should kill a man”). The “appeal” of David is of someone utterly unapologetic, unfazed when Stevens suggest his appetites are born of racist impulses (above) or taking relish in his revenge on Barbossa (repeating “Felix the Rat” and shooting Barbossa in the hands, he is told he’ll see him in hell: “We’ll have shrimp” replies David, ejecting him from the limo. “We’ll have barbecue jumbo shrimp!”) 

Hector Guzman: You racist Americans. You just want to cut us poor Hispanics completely out of the market. 

David Jason: No, Mr. Guzman. I think you know that there’s no such thing as an American anymore. No Hispanics, no Japanese, no blacks, no whites, no nothing. It’s just rich people and poor people. The three of us are all rich, so we’re on the same side.

Indeed, David announces himself as having moved beyond standard religious or moral imprimaturs at the end, while trying to appeal to a mutually oppressed fraternal bond with Stevens: “Forget this Judeo-Christian bullshit. The same people that taught us virtue are the very ones who enslaved us, baby. He moderated his pitch to Hector, though, suggesting their link was one of economic status.

Russell Stevens Jr/ John Hull: You ever kill anybody? 

Gerry Carver: Are you kidding? I went to Princeton to avoid all that shit.

Deep Cover confronts its racial elements in a manner that’s refreshingly upfront; after all, we all but open on Charles Martin Smith’ DEA Agent repeatedly asking black undercover work applicants “What’s the difference between a black man and a nigger?” Really, though, what it comes down to is money; racial divides provide a convenient Hegelian distraction, in much the same way that Carver proffers the sop of crack babies to Stevens when his resolve over his work is wavering. Of course, that isn’t what it’s really about, but Carver has long since come to terms with being utterly ineffectual and, indeed, thriving on it (he invites Stevens to Washington with him). 

Russell Stevens Jr/ John Hull: Hector Guzmán goes fishing with George fucking Bush!

The movie – originally conceived with a white protagonist – is in part based on Michael Levine’s Deep Cover: The Inside Story of How DEA Infighting, Incompetence and Subterfuge Lost Us the Biggest Battle of the Drug War. Amongst other things, Levine claimed the CIA was instrumental in creating Bolivian cartel La Coparación. The movie’s Hector Guzmán is explicitly identified as being in bed with Bush (the one who was former CIA director); he’s “a friend of our President’s”. Stevens asks “What is he, the new Noriega?” and couches this in his helping US interests (fight communists) with the reward to let him bring in drugs to the US.

Gerry Carver: Don’t’ try to make a fucking conspiracy theory out of it!

So Deep Cover doesn’t go as far as addressing the drugs trade as fundamental to CIA and black-ops funding, or characterising the influx of drugs in terms of social engineering, or indeed everything else that feeds into this underbelly – nor does Levine, for that matter, who seems to appraise the CIA’s activity according to a primarily political pretext – but it’s nevertheless fairly forthright in pointing out “It’s all bullshit. You know that. I know that”. You can’t even accuse Stevens of naivety; he allows himself to be convinced of the merits of his mission, despite his better judgement. 

David Jason: If we take it, half of Latin America will be after us.

There’s an argument, even with someone like Levine himself (“CIA agent of misinformation!” as he was accused by a student in 1991) that you leak some of the truth in order to protect the bigger lie. The movie’s ending, where Stevens releases a tape to the press evidencing Guzman’s links to Bush, is on the fanciful side, but no more so than Guzman showing up for the meet at the docks. Indeed, there’s a degree of hyperbole in the more earnest side of Deep Cover that’s a bit overstated for my tastes, but I can’t argue it doesn’t fit tonally, from proselytising Detective Taft (Clarence Williams III Reverend) to the haunting memories of dad (Glynn Turman), to the across-the-hall kid Russell befriends (his mother Kamal Lopez ODs).

Deep Cover is sobering in terms of its message, but it’s often very funny in its eccentricity. James T Morris’ antagonistic drug dealer Ivy shows up to menace (or shoot), quoting Arnie in The Terminator and responds to Stevens confronting him by pissing all over his shoes (“Ehhh, you a bitch! You wanna suck it bitch? Or do you just wanna drink? Oh shit! Mother fucker! You fuckin’ bitch!). Goldblum’s lines and line readings are a constant source of quirky delight (“A man has two things in this world: his word and his balls. Or is that three things?; on the subject of designer drugs, “They’ve gotten a bad name ’cause, uh, I mean, there’s a limited market for Parkinson’s disease”). Sierra is a grotesquely leering titan in the villainy stakes, and Arthur Mendoza (in a cape) almost as good as Anton Gallegos. And there are genuinely oddball choices, such as Sydney Lassick (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) as Barbossa’s camp right-hand acolyte (it really is like he’s stepped off the set of Nest).

Russell would be memorably sampled on Future Sound of London’s Dead Cities (“I had killed a man. A man who looked like me”). Duke never really made good on Deep Cover, and while his desire to avoid pigeonholing as a director of black movies is admirable, no career plan can justify Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. We’ve seen drug trade exposés since – American Made, Kill the Messenger – but one has to conclude, much as they may seem like relative strides forward in revealing how things work, it’s what they don’t say that speaks louder.

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