Criterion Review: DEEP COVER, Much More Than Just a Thriller

A moody and stylish neo-noir, anchored by a breakout lead performance from Laurence Fishburne


Film noir hits the mean streets of 1990s Los Angeles in this stylish and subversive underworld odyssey from veteran actor-director Bill Duke. Laurence Fishburne stars as Russell Stevens, a police officer who goes undercover as “John Hull,” the partner of a dangerously ambitious cocaine trafficker (Jeff Goldblum), in order to infiltrate and bring down a powerful Latin American drug ring operating in LA. But the further Stevens descends into this ruthless world of money, violence, and power, the more disillusioned he becomes — and the harder it is to make out the line between right and wrong, crime and justice. Steeped in shadowy, neon-soaked atmosphere and featuring Dr. Dre’s debut solo single, Deep Cover is an unsung gem of the nineties’ Black cinema explosion that delivers a riveting character study and sleek action thrills alongside a furious moral indictment of America and the devastating failures of the war on drugs.

An adaptation of a book by former Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent Michael Levine, director Bill Duke (A Rage in Harlem) roots the experiences of this man in a more resonant truth, how the war on drugs was impacting American society, particularly Black communities. At the core of the story is Police Officer Russell Stevens (Laurence Fishburne), a man whose moral path is life is driven by the actions of his low-life father, whose witnessed getting gunned down while attempting to rob a liquor store. Attempting to clean up the streets, he gets an opportunity to go beyond his work as a street cop and go undercover for the DEA as a buyer and later dealer of cocaine. Basically starting on the ground floor and working his way up through the organization. This immersion in the criminal underbelly consumes his life and conflicts with his moral code. As he gets more entangled in the affairs of the producers and traffickers of the drugs, and the law officials seeking to take them down.

Adapted for the screen by Henry Bean (Internal Affairs, no, not that one) and Michael Tolkin (The Player, Changing Lanes), Deep Cover keeps its focus on plunging this man into this dark and violent world, forcing him to make some questionable decisions to maintain his cover, and to survive. There’s a tangible tragedy to him being sucked in, tinged by it all, in spite of his intent and efforts. It s an effective way to show how individuals, and indeed a community, get caught up in this toxic conflict fueled by outsiders. A drug epidemic in the 80s/90s era that spread across America, fueling poverty, crime, and racial inequality, adding rot to an already creaking system.

It was the first lead role for Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix, Event Horizon) and is undoubtedly both a breakthrough, and one of his most memorable turns. There’s a real weight to his performance as Stevens/Hill as he wrestles with his choices, as well as a grasp of the tone and edginess required to drive it all home. A contrast is Jeff Goldblum’s quirkier spin as David Jason, a mid-level player with odious allure, and cultivated image to connect with these drug runners and also shield himself from them. A jarring presence at times, he adds another layer of commentary, concerning ingratiation, appropriation, and exploitation.

Deep Cover works solidly as a thriller, but lot more going on here than that. Director Bill Duke builds a gritty and immersive world, with pops of color and transitions and cuts that leave you feeling off center. Combined with Fishburne’s brooding narration and tension in front of the camera, it generates a real feeling of unease, futility, and anger too. America’s failings, so under scrutiny these days, have long existed, and Duke expertly reminds us how the pursuit of capitalism often comes at the expense of community.

The Package

Criterion’s presentation stems from an all new 4K scan and restoration. The result is stunning. An already gorgeous film is given new luster. Colors are vibrant, with impressive range and depth, detail also is outstanding. There is a little softness at times, and the restoration has taken a little edge off the grain, but overall it’s a very well judged transfer and cleanup. Extras are well considered and add plenty of appreciation for the film, and those behind the production:

  • New interview with director Bill Duke: Just short of 20 minutes, Duke discusses his overall career (as both actor and director), with a good focus on Deep Cover.
  • AFI Conservatory seminar from 2018 featuring Duke and actor Laurence Fishburne, moderated by film critic Elvis Mitchell: ~An hour in length, it’s a thoughtful and engaging discussion with these two pivotal figures
  • New conversation between film scholars Racquel J. Gates and Michael B. Gillespie about Deep Cover’s place within both the Black film boom of the early 1990s and the noir genre: Running nearly 40 minutes, these two authors dive deep into the cultural aspects of Deep Cover, and provide a wealth of context for its place in, and contribution to Black cinema
  • New conversation between scholar Claudrena N. Harold and professor, DJ, and podcaster Oliver Wang about the film’s title track and its importance to the history of hip-hop: A medley of musical talent discuss the composition that opens the film and again how it has shaped perception of the film and its legacy
  • Trailer
  • PLUS: An essay by Gillespie: In the liner booklet included, which also features stills, as well as info on the restoration of the film
  • New cover illustration by Ngabo “El’Cesart” Desire

The Bottom Line

Deep Cover is a thrilling neo-noir that delivers engaging characters, conflict, and corruption. A real immersion in one man’s morality tale, taking aim at the flaws and exploitation of a failed system. A showcase for Fishburne and Duke’s talents, Criterion’s release is a welcome celebration of this authentic and impactful work.

Deep Cover is available via Criterion from July 13th

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