' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Deep Cover (1992)

Friday, August 17, 2018

Friday's Old Fashioned: Deep Cover (1992)

In playing a cop going under undercover to infiltrate an L.A. drug cartel, Laurence Fishburne describes events taking place in “Deep Cover” with a voiceover that is less stricken or sad than unsentimental. It evokes the film’s neo-noir tones, but it also underlines the emotional tightrope his character, Russell Stevens, is forced to walk throughout, where anger and sorrow roiling underneath must be kept at bay. You see the genesis of these emotions in the film’s lone flashback, set in 1972 Cleveland, where young Russell Stevens is in the car with his dad (Glynn Turman) on Christmas Eve night. Between snorts of coke and getting shot in the back during a liquor store robbery, Russell Stevens Sr. keeps commanding his son “Don’t you ever be like me!” If the dichotomy is obvious, Turman, in his lone scene, makes it count with jittery fright, playing a livewire in tune with his terrible impulses who nevertheless cannot or will not tamp them down. And director Bill Duke in concert with cinematographer Bojan Bazelli wrings maximum terror from Russell Sr.’s death by juxtaposing twinkling red Christmas lights with the red of Russell Stevens Sr.’s blood streaked on the car window in front of his son. It’s an image you believe would leave a lasting imprint in a terrified kid’s mind; it’s an image that left a lasting imprint in my mind.

This sets up the ferment within Russell that is precisely what stands out to his DEA superior Gerald Carver, played by Charles Martin Smith in a performance dressing up the abject in an amiability that only works to make his metaphorical slime that much more oozy and gross. The only moment in which “Deep Cover” truly speechifies is when Carver lectures a hesitant Russell about the cause of effect of crack babies. Smith, brilliantly, nauseatingly, drains this monologue of any empathy to let us see it as the manipulation it is, preying on Russell’s sense of guilt, pinning his charge in the corner. Which way is up? is a question that often gets posed, whether literally or figuratively, in movies chronicling deep cover perils, but, as this moment shows, the angles at which Russell finds himself in too deep are more askew.

Indeed, if it is typical in these sorts of movies for the clandestine cop to eventually become smitten with the way of life he is trying to bring down, that never quite happens in “Deep Cover.” Yes, Russell eventually goes rogue, made to say the line in voiceover “I liked being a big shot. Wouldn’t you?” But Fishburne deftly drains that standard-issue observation of all vitality so that you don’t really believe that he believes what he’s shoveling. What’s more, his turn is tied less to the lifestyle than outrage for the duplicitousness of his nominally law-abiding superiors, the ancient reveal that the good guys are not always so good. That is not to say, however, that “Deep Cover” drowns in nihilism. It offers something of an optimistic end, true, but also a single mother ridden by crack who might well make spectacularly bad decisions where her daughter is concerned but is also carefully painted as a victim of the drug trade’s unrelenting and indifferent cycle. That she disappears for a good chunk of the movie, in fact, merely underlines that point.

If there are myriad characters that leave a mark, none leave one as indelible as David Jason (Jeff Goldblum), a trafficker in the cartel’s ring who becomes Russell’s closest confidant in the underworld. He is introduced in his tony home with his white wife and white child, but launders his drug money through an African art dealership, a blatant if no less effective metaphor for white tourism, which is further underlined by Goldblum doing something like the Dance of the White Jackass in an African mask for Russell’s non-amusement. If the cultural appropriation is blunt and brutal, however, David is ultimately revealed as operating equally from a place of traditional, moronic machismo.

Seriously, what graphic word do you think an R-rated 1992 thriller like “Deep Cover" might employ most frequently? Fuck? Shit? Nope. It’s balls. As in, “You got the balls for this, or what?” Or, “He finally grew some balls.” Or, “A man has two things in this world — his word and his balls.” And though David eventually sports a black leather duster, slicked back hair, and tosses off a few one-liners while firing a gun, he only gets there by virtue of the ball busting brigade, never in a more comically macabre (pitiful) manner than a game of bloody knuckles. If Goldblum would go on the next year in “Jurassic Park” to define a kind of twitchy self-confidence, here he epitomizes the sort of white male insecurity that inevitably leads to power mad ruin.

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