Hard to believe but Laurence Fishburne got his start as a 12-year-old on the soap opera One Life to Live. That role caught the eye of director Francis Ford Coppola who cast the then 14-year-old in Apocalypse Now. Fishburne spent two years on that troubled production and the result was a significant contribution to American Cinema. In a film full of iconic moments, Fishburne garnered worldwide attention dancing to The Rolling Stones “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” on a riverboat that was escorting Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard down river. Laurence Fishburne has enjoyed a long and storied career in film and TV and while it has only earned him one Academy Award nomination (What’s Love Got to Do With It) few would argue about his artistic significance.
1992’s Deep Cover found Fishburne one of his best roles, as an undercover cop whose attempt to infiltrate a major drug organization turns him into the very type of criminal who he was sworn to bring down. The film was directed by long time actor Bill Duke (Commando, Predator) from a screenplay by Michael Tolkin (The Player) and Harry Bean (Internal Affairs). As the film starts, a young boy watches his father get gunned down during an attempted robbery. The young boy grows up to be a police officer played by Fishburne who is now interviewing for an undercover assignment. The federal agent in charge (played coldly by character actor Charles Martin Smith) is surprisingly impressed by Fishburne’s checkered history. Smith states “You score almost like a criminal. You resent authority and have a rigid moral code, but no underlying system of values. Look at your rage and repressed violence. Under cover, your faults will become virtues.”
Fishburne is tasked with getting a foot in the door of an LA based operation that has ties to a major South American drug cartel. He quickly earns the trust of a high-priced lawyer (played to perfection by Jeff Goldblum) who himself has dreams of becoming a drug kingpin by creating a new designer synthetic drug. The two become quick partners and Fishburne completely immerses himself in his undercover assignment. We watch as he agonizes over every step that he takes over the line, which includes his first murder. After that first killing, his handler barely bats an eye and encourages him to go as deep as possible for the greater good. Fishburne and Goldblum continue their ascent much to the dismay of their criminal superiors which leads to murderous consequences as well. At one point Fishburne exclaims, “I ain’t nothing but a drug dealer pretending to be a cop.”
Deep Cover is a modern-day film noir, and a very good one thanks to the performances of Fishburne, Goldblum, Smith, and Victoria Dilliard as an art dealer who uses her business as a front for money laundering. Director Duke, in his directorial follow-up to the equally overlooked A Rage in Harlem, helms with confidence and delivers all shades of right and wrong in this world of crime, drugs, law, order, and big world politics. Writers Tolkin and Bean give us characters with significant moral dilemmas who may behave badly but not without contemplation and remorse.
Re-watching Deep Cover recently I was reminded of the failure of the “War on Drugs” in the 90’s and I was stung by how relevant the film is in today’s current opioid crisis that is costing millions of lives. It made me think of the words of Detective Meldrick Lewis from the long-running Homicide: Life on the Street: “I’ve been a cop for a long time. And drugs out there, we’re never gonna win that. There’s a hundred open-air drug markets in this city and fifty thousand drug fiends out there. And we’re taking on human desires with lawyers, and jailhouses, and lockups, and you and I know human desire is kicking us in the ass.”