After breaking into show business as an actor, Bill Duke helped to blaze a new path forward during the 1980’s. As one of the first African American directors working in television, he cut his teeth directing episodes of shows like Dallas, Knots Landing, Miami Vice, Falcon Crest and Hill Street Blues; he also directed his first movie – also for TV – The Killing Floor (1984). Expanding into theatrical films in the 1990’s, he attracted notice with A Rage in Harlem (1991), which was considered for the Palme d’Or at Cannes; Deep Cover was his follow up. Previously released on DVD during the early days of the format by New Line, Criterion has brought it back into print for its Blu-ray debut.
The Production: 4.5/5
Cincinnati police officer Russell Stevens Jr. (Laurence Fishburne) – swearing to avoid the fate he witnessed his drug addled father suffered at Christmas when he was a kid – is recruited by ambitious DEA agent Gerry Carver (Charles Martin Smith) to infiltrate the Los Angeles underground and the West Coast’s largest supplier of cocaine. Working as “John Hull”, Stevens begins dealing drugs and soon finds himself crossing paths with attorney David Jason (Jeff Goldblum), who also happens to be working in the organization that Stevens is investigating. When he becomes partners with Jason, it also sets in motion a path of disillusionment where he learns that nothing is what it seems.
Deep Cover is a movie that plays like a straight up crime thriller, but has more going on beneath the surface. For starters, the movie ventures into neo noir territory with its neon lit scenes and a hero – or antihero in this case – caught between the law and the criminal underground. However, that formula is given a twist due to the fact that the identity crisis playing out here is viewed through the prospective of a black hero, something that was uncommon in the noir genre; also, the War on Drugs is brought into play, viewing it as one where victims can be found on all sides – you don’t have to overdose or get riddled with bullets to be a victim – something that obviously still resonates today. Finally, the combination of noir, crime thriller and the Black film elements are all brought together under the solid and assured direction of Bill Duke, who taps into the atmosphere as well as bringing out great performances from his cast. To sum it all up, Deep Cover is more than just an intriguing brew of different genres wrapped up in a crime thriller, it’s also a potent neo noir and one of the most underrated movies of the 1990’s.
Giving one of his career best performances here, Laurence Fishburne (credited here as Larry for the last time) is compelling as the undercover officer becoming disillusioned as the charade goes on; he would be nominated for an Oscar the next year for his portrayal of Ike Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It (1993) and later became the first African American actor to portray Othello (1995) on the big screen. As the lawyer moonlighting as a drug runner, Jeff Goldblum brought his own eclectic take to the role; the next year he would cement himself as one of the most recognizable faces of 1990’s cinema with his appearance in Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Jurassic Park (1993) – something that was further solidified later in the decade with another blockbuster, Independence Day (1996). Charles Martin Smith subverted his easy going persona as an actor with his performance as the ambitious (and duplicitous) DEA agent who brings Russell into the undercover operation; the late Clarence Williams III (best known as Lincoln “Linc” Hayes on TV’s The Mod Squad) is well matched as the devoutly religious Detective Taft, who tries – tragically – to be the angel on Russell’s shoulder to Goldblum’s devil in a crucial scene. Rounding out the cast here are Gregory Sierra (better known to TV show aficionados as Lt. Chano Amenguale in the first two seasons of Barney Miller) as Barbossa, the underboss in the drug organization, Victoria Dillard as the art dealer whose business is a front to launder the drug money, Glynn Turman as Russell’s drug addled father in the prologue, Roger Guenveur Smith as the low level drug dealer Eddie Dudley, who ends up killed by Barbossa, James T. Morris as the drug dealer “Ivy”, Sydney Lassick as the underling “Gopher”, Kamala Lopez as Russell’s drug addicted neighbor, and Sandra Gould (Gladys Kravitz from Bewitched) as the landlady of Russell’s apartment building.
3D Rating: NA
The film is presented in its original 1:85:1 aspect ratio, taken from a brand new 4K digital transfer. Film grain is organic with fine details and color palette given a faithful representation, doing full justice to Bojan Bazelli’s cinematography here. There’s next to no instances of issues like scratches, tears or dirt present, which means that this is likely the best the movie will ever look on home video, eclipsing the previous DVD release by leaps and bounds.
The film’s original Dolby Stereo soundtrack is presented on a 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track for this release. Dialogue is both strong and clear, with the sound mix and music soundtrack (a combination of hip hop songs – including the title track – and the Michel Colombier background score) also given a faithful representation as well. There’s little to no problems like distortion, crackling, popping or hissing present here, meaning that this is likely the best the movie will ever sound on home video, also surpassing the DVD.
Special Features: 4.5/5
Interview with director Bill Duke – Newly recorded for this release, the director talks about his career as an actor and director while sharing his memories on the making of the movie.
AFI Conservatory seminar with Laurence Fishburne and Duke (56:33) – Film critic Elvis Mitchell moderates this discussion on the movie with the star and director following a screening of the movie in 2018.
Conversation between film scholars Racquel J. Gates and Michael B. Gillespie (35:37) – This newly filmed conversation looks at the movie’s place in the film noir genre as well as the wave of Black films in the early 1990’s.
Conversation between scholar Claudrena N. Harold & professor/DJ/podcaster Oliver Wang (17:36) – In this newly filmed conversation, the film’s title track – performed by Dr. Dre and featuring Snoop Dogg – as well as its significance in the hip hop genre as well as its use in the movie is put under the microscope.
Theatrical Trailer (0:44)
Foldout featuring an essay by Gillespie
While it didn’t set the box office on fire, Deep Cover still attracted strong notices from the critics and has become one of the hidden gems of the 1990’s. Criterion’s stellar Blu-ray release should help the movie attract a wider audience with the label’s typically strong HD transfer along with great special features on the movie itself. Very highly recommended and absolutely worth upgrading from the OOP DVD.
Amazon.com: Deep Cover (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]: Laurence Fishburne, Jeff Goldblum, Yvette Heyden, Charles Martin Smith, Victoria Dillard, Gregory Sierra, David Weixelbaum, Glynn Turman, Arthur Mendoza, Clarence Williams III, Bill Duke: Movies & TV
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