'Deep Cover' tells a familiar story very well

April 15, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Larry Fishburne is a star who's been waiting to happen for a long time. I think he's happening now.

After a series of stunning peripheral performances -- he was Furious Styles in John Singleton's "Boyz 'N the Hood," to name just one -- Fishburne has moved to the center of an excellent movie. And the part has just as much pizazz as Eddie Murphy's star-making turn in "48 HRS."

In "Deep Cover," Fishburne plays a Cincinnati cop named Russell Stevens, who's recruited by a Drug Enforcement Agency official, transferred to Los Angeles, and given orders to penetrate a drug cartel run by Colombians. It helps that Stevens has something of a pathological personality; it turns out that his natural instincts for self-preservation and self-advancement find their most meaningful expression on the opposite side of the line he's been walking. The theme is common, but Fishburne makes it fresh and original: the cop who gets so far beneath the surface he forgets there's a surface. He's not just faking it; he's living it. The moral compass begins to tilt as the temptations and the pleasures become more intense.

As writer Henry Bean's plot has it, Stevens gets his first big break -- getting into the dope biz, after all, is like getting into show biz -- after scuffling around the outskirts of L.A.'s vice scene, when he teams with an attorney named David Jason, played by Jeff Goldblum, who himself has wild ambitions for making a killing in the drug market. The two happen to make a very good team.

In fact, as actors, Fishburne and Goldblum make a wonderful team, and their sense of edgy buddyhood gives the movie its crackle as it moves through plot manipulations left and right, and as they navigate their way through the swamps the Colombians have constructed. Goldblum is neurotic brilliance, theoretical 11 intelligence, vision without a lot of guts or machismo; Fishburne has the street smarts, the nerve of a burglar and a way of turning to ice if the situation calls for it. But best of all, the relationship is subtly ambiguous; we always know that each of these characters has a secret agenda and we watch as beneath the surface of the friendship, they move each other in subtle directions. It's not Iago and Othello; it's two Iagos.

The movie has the wonderful cool, night-world style of early "Miami Vice"; in fact it's so swankily directed and the scenes of hostility crack to life with such originality (a shooting in a men's room, in particular) that the film's look takes it far beyond a plot that becomes somewhat predictable. As Stevens ascends the dope ladder, he's getting closer and closer to Mr. Big, who happens to be a Latin American diplomat much beloved by the State Department. Anyone who's seen a cop movie knows that the evil big shot will be declared off-limits by the Washington boys. That's the way it happened in "Lethal Weapon II" and that's the way it happens here.

Bill Duke directed "A Rage in Harlem" and got reviews he didn't deserve for what was really a coarse, witless and over-violent movie. Here, he's really toned down: The moments of violence uncoil with terrifying suddenness, but there's not that cheesy insistence on viewing the carnage with glee. One feels that it's a violent movie because it's set in a violent world, not because audiences really like violence.

Henry Bean also wrote "Internal Affairs," another smarmy look at cop life; he co-writes this film with Michael Tolkin, who wrote and directed "The Rapture" and the much-heralded upcoming "The Player"; aside from it's conventionality of invention, the script they've cobbled together is smart and tough, with bitter dialogue that really flows.

"Deep Cover" is good fun.

'Deep Cover'

Starring Larry Fishburne and Jeff Goldblum.

Directed by Bill Duke.

Released by New Line.

Rated R.

***

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