`In Too Deep' a staredown with humanity's evil side

Review: Epps is the brilliant vehicle that carries us into a violent, scary and ultimately addictive world.

August 25, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Once you've started dancing with the devil, how do you stop?

That's the central dilemma of "In Too Deep," a gritty, profane and profoundly disturbing look at the American drug culture and one cop's attempt to blow it up from the inside.

Featuring a magnetic performance from Omar Epps, "In Too Deep" traces the story of Jeff Cole, a cocksure undercover narcotics cop who's convinced he, and he alone, can get far enough inside the local drug kingpin's empire to make it crumble.

The film opens in flashback, as Cole -- using his street alias of J. Reid -- is about to prove his mettle by gunning down an erstwhile customer of crime lord Dwyane Gittens (LL Cool J). We see Cole as a newly graduated cadet, trying to convince the head of the narcotics unit (a typically sly Stanley Tucci) to let him join up.

Cole's swagger gets him the job, and his street smarts soon get him into Gittens' inner circle -- a feat he pulls off a little too easily, one of the few missteps in Michael Henry Brown and Paul Aaron's carefully laid-out script. Once there, he gets to see what hell is really like, as Gittens, whose street nickname is God, spares no one in his ruthless desire to wrest complete control of the city's streets for himself.

Just like countless undercover cops before him, Cole/Reid discovers that going undercover is not easy; it soon becomes impossible to tell where Reid stops and Cole begins.

When he's almost killed during a shootout, Cole is taken off the street and sent to a rural farmhouse to chill out.

While there, he meets a beautiful photographer's model (Nia Long) and looks to be establishing the sort of happy, domestic life that most people long for. Cole may be happy, but he's not challenged -- and the challenge is everything to him. Soon, he talks his way back onto the force and into Gittens' world. Only this time the stakes are higher and the danger even greater.

Director Michael Rymer doesn't shy away from showing how ugly and violent Gittens' world is; if anything, he tends to lay on the seamy stuff too thick, particularly in an over-the-top scene where Gittens, as his young son watches, administers a savage beating to one of his former customers. The camera keeps cutting back and forth between Gittens' fists, his son's angelic face and Cole's how-do-I-get-out-of-this-one look. It's a powerful moment, but the innocence vs. savagery image is a bit much.

Which is something that can't be said for Epps' performance. As a man teetering on the edge, struggling between his obligation to uphold the law and his growing infatuation with Gittens' and the exciting (if ugly) world he inhabits, Cole/Reid is a moral compass constantly threatening to swing off course. Epps makes you feel every moment of that struggle, and despite your suspicions the story will end happily, he never lets you take for granted which side is going to win.

As Gittens, LL Cool J continues a run of strong screen performances. Only this time, unlike in "Halloween: H20" and "Deep Blue Sea," he's not the best thing in a mediocre film. His character is a frightening force of nature, made even more unnerving by the fact that he does not look the part. Rarely has his baby-face countenance been used to better advantage.

"In Too Deep" doesn't break a lot of new ground. Films from "Apocalypse Now" to "Donnie Brasco" have looked at what happens when those asked to enforce the law let themselves get drawn in by the charisma of those who break it. This one may belong a notch below those classics, but even mentioning it in the same breath puts it in pretty heady company.

'In Too Deep'

Starring Omar Epps, LL Cool J and Stanley Tucci

Directed by Michael Rymer

Released by Dimension Films

Rated R (brutal violence, strong sexuality, language and drug content)

Sun score ***

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