When Russell Stevens was 10 years old, he saw his father get gunned down while holding up a liquor store. Now, 20 years later, Russell (Laurence Fishburne) is a cop who is so straight that he doesn’t even drink. But because of his father’s background, a psychological profile that indicates Russell is unique suited to understand how the criminal mind works, and the fact that he has no loved ones at home, he is recruited to work undercover. His weaselly handler, Carver (Charles Martin Smith), explains that going undercover means that Russell is going to have to become a criminal 24/7. He can’t just do his job for 8 hours a day and then go back to his normal life at night.
With the government’s money, Russell sets himself up as a dealer, buying and selling the drugs that are destroying his community. It does not take long before Russell meets David Jason (Jeff Goldblum), a lawyer and aspiring drug kingpin. At first, David makes Russell as being an undercover cop but, after Russell is arrested by the righteous but clueless Detective Taft (Clarence Williams III), David changes his mind and brings Russell into the operation. The line between being a cop and a criminal starts to blur, especially after David and Russell start to bond over their mutual dislike of their boss, Felix (Gregory Sierra). It doesn’t take long for Russell to get in over his head.
There have been a lot of films made about undercover cops losing themselves in their new criminal identity but few take the story to its logical conclusion like Deep Cover does. Russell may start out as a straight arrow but, by the end of the movie, he’s killed a dealer in cold blood and broken his own personal pledge to never do cocaine himself. He also discovers that David is often a more trustworthy partner than his own colleagues in law enforcement. Fishburne and Goldblum both give excellent, spot-on performances as Russell and David and they’re supported by an able cast of weasels and tough guys. I especially liked Charles Martin Smith’s performance as Carver. (When Russell asks Carver if he’s ever killed a man, Carver laughs and says that he went to Princeton “just to avoid that shit.”) Gregory Sierra is also great in the role of Felix and I loved that, of all people, Sidney Lassick played one of Felix’s henchmen. That’s like seeing John Fiedler play the Godfather.
One of the best crime thrillers of the 90s, Deep Cover is not only a detective film but it’s also a politically-charged look at why America’s war on drugs was doomed to failure. No sooner does Russell get into position to catch the man behind Felix’s operation than he’s told to drop the case because the State Department thinks that the drug lord could be politically helpful to them in South America. As Russell discovers, the War on Drugs is more interested in taking out the soldiers on the streets than the generals in charge. While men like Carver sit in their offices and move people around like pieces on a chess board, people like Russell are left to clean up the mess afterward.