Deep Cover

(Bill Duke, USA, 1992)


Deep Cover is one of the most accomplished and compelling crime thrillers of the 1990s. It crackles with an energy that begins right from the opening credits, as it guides us effortlessly through the moral labyrinth of its complex undercover plot set within an international drug ring.

From the first moments, it is unusual and compelling. Its superbly crafted voice-over narration, as delivered by Larry Fishburne as John, has the cadence and literary flourishes of contemporary spoken-word poetry. The plot’s sometimes outrageous air of limitless possibility and digression includes a corrupt and psychotic lawyer (Jeff Goldblum as David) who talks in philosophical maxims (“In dreams begin responsibilities”), and practices sophisticated perversions; a diminutive police agent (Charles Martin Smith as Gerald) who likes to refer to himself as “God”; a money-launderer (Victoria Dillard as Betty) who runs a gallery for African art; and an earnest Reverend (Clarence Williams III as Taft) who presses prayer books onto lawbreakers. Even John himself, we are told, has the “exact psychology” of a violent criminal!

The film is brave, too, in its subversive message of anti-government critique, its refusal to tie up its dilemmas too neatly and, in its final line, the explicit posing of a moral-political question to the viewer (“What would you do?”).


When Duke (well-known as an actor) made Deep Cover, he was coming off the success of the stylish gangster piece A Rage in Harlem  (1991). Although he has subsequently directed other features (including Hoodlum, 1997) with an African-American focus, his career has continued mainly in television. Deep Cover remains, to date, his finest work.


At the moment of its initial release, Deep Cover seemed to be channelling the streamlined, hardboiled manner of James B. Harris’ brilliant Cop (1987). Clearer today is its enormous debt to Abel Ferrara’s King of New York  (also shot by Bojan Bazelli, and featuring Fishburne in a radically different part); it overlaps uncannily, too, with  Bad Lieutenant (1992), released around the same time. Like Ferrara, Duke expertly uses experimental techniques (such as step-printing frames, and jump-cutting to hip-hop beats), and the violent action scenes have a startling, kinetic force. All these films with which Deep Cover forms a tight network are impeccable models in their (expanded) genre.

Writers Michael Tolkin (The Player, 1992) and Henry Bean (Internal Affairs, 1990) take a narrative staple of film noir – the anti-hero in a spiral of trouble, unable to escape without making a bold move “beyond the law” – and build upon it a complex meditation on morality and amorality: as in Ferrara’s work, it is not good (or law) which vanquishes evil, but the intensification of evil itself, a transgressive identification with the power of evil. These frankly religious and philosophical themes definitely connect to Tolkin’s previous work on The Player (adapted from his novel) and especially the sui generis The Rapture (1991).

Deep Cover mixes these noir elements with a popular contemporary plot device: the undercover cop who gradually loses his identity, as in Cruising  (1980), Donnie Brasco (1997), and The Departed (2006). As fascinating, ultimately, as the central character’s dark journey is the arc that takes David (Goldblum at his most wonderfully inventive) from being a meek lawyer – similar to the Sean Penn character in De Palma’s Carlito’s Way  (1993) – to the heights of Nietzschean delirium: chanting “I want my cake and eat it too”, challenging gangsters to knuckle fights, and quoting (complete with Cuban accent) the motto from Scarface  (1983) – “My balls and my word” – at the height of a tense negotiation.


Such blackly comic pop culture references make a potent blend with everything else the film lays out so deftly and jazzily.

MORE Duke: The Cemetery Club

© Adrian Martin September 1993 / October 2008

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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