Movies We Like
Deep Cover is one of those underrated films with a bold social commentary that is often swept under the carpet because it's from the '90s—that time in America that everyone loves to hate (but I love unabashedly.) When I first saw the film as an adolescent there was something about it that begged a very adult question; is mankind good in nature but drawn to necessary evils, or are we evil drawn to the predisposition of trying to be good? Living in Los Angeles, where the film is set, I still find myself asking that question.
Taking the still-relevant racial tension of an era and focusing on its organized crime and judicial system, the film opens with a young boy witnessing his father holding up a store on Christmas Eve. He is shot and killed, leaving the boy with a determination to never have such a pitiful existence. Russell (Lawrence Fishburne), now a man, is a rookie police officer trying to make a difference in the world. He doesn't drink or do drugs, however, when called into an interview for an assignment, he is told that he has the psychological profile of a criminal. In undercover work, he is assured, all of his flaws will become virtues.
He is given the name John Hull and set up in a seedy motel with the task of taking down a Latin drug lord. To do this will he will have to start small and more or less submerge himself into a world that he desperately tried to stay far away from. It doesn't take long for his cold and calculated demeanor to win him respect amongst the small, and big-time dealers—namely David (Jeff Goldblum), the man with not enough power to have his own operation but just enough to have respect amongst bottom feeders. His popularity leads to larger and larger quantities of drugs that the police department can't afford to buy (thereby taking it off the streets), so, being the only obvious course of action, John must actually sell drugs to the same community he is trying to assist in order to save face. Here begins his humble, and yet traumatizing, moral struggle as the lines between cop and dealer become blurred, if not obsolete.
The film has an almost religious and paternal tone in many moments, due largely in part to an officer (Clarence Williams III) who is convinced that John is a criminal on the wrong path and needs saving. But what he needs, and never had, is someone to believe in—and when one can't find that person in the mirror, they look elsewhere. This aspect of the plot created the feeling of a man who is afflicted with an arrested development that is largely due to his family life and place in the world. That feeling, more so than the obvious commentary on race and racism, created a powerful impression on what it is like to pick up the pieces of your life without guidance. It doesn't necessarily give criminals a free-pass, but it does make you wonder just how different they are than those who seem to be going through life with honorable intentions.
The look and sound of the film was also something that allowed me to suspend disbelief with little to no effort, even though it's been 20 years since it opened. It's shot in a Hollywood so familiar, but vastly different than what it is now—and those extremes and familiarities help the viewer be taken in by the locations and series of events that unfold there. The soundtrack is also one of my favorite from the '90s, featuring the very talented Michel Colombier who composed amazing scores from the '60s until he died in 2004. It also features the violent, but quite popular gangster-rap hit by Dr. Dre feat. Snoop Dogg “Deep Cover.” The art direction and bold lighting were also one of the signature '90s aesthetics that I miss in films, similar to those seen in the early work of Spike Lee. I recommend it to to those who enjoy crime dramas and anyone who can appreciate just how relevant these kinds of films are.