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In Too Deep

Review by Cynthia Fuchs
Posted 27 August 1999

In Too Deep Directed by Michael Rymer 

Starring Ivonne Coll
Jermaine Dupri, Omar Epps,
Pam Grier, Hill Harper,
LL Cool J, Nia Long, 
Mya, Nas, Stanley Tucci,
Veronica Webb, and Jake Weber 

Written by Michael Henry Brown
and Paul Aaron

It's for real: LL Cool J is a movie star. When he makes his entrance in Michael Rymer's undercover cop movie, the girls in the audience whoop with delight and the guys applaud, respectful and thrilled at the same time. And this for a scene where the man tears someone's tongue out -- it happens behind the bathroom door, but you hear enough screaming and see enough blood and flesh that you have a good idea of what's going on. Through it all, LL Cool J remains poised and smooth. He knows he's a star and doesn't appear to doubt for a minute that you know it too.

In Too DeepSuch confidence has served LL Cool J well during his lengthy (15 years and counting) hiphop career. Never one to back down from a controversy (or fight), he's taken on younger players with distinctive style and occasional grace. And ever since he sexed up his act with the single "Doin It" (and MTV rotated it to the point of tedium a few years ago), he's been all in vogue. And now that Hollywood is at last upfront about its lust for rappers (after waiting to see how they'd fare in "black," "urban," and "hood" films), the entertainment industry seems ready to deal with Mr. J. The way has been paved by recent in-roaders like the super-nice Will Smith, the super-charismatic Ice Cube, and the super-poised Nas have made their marks on big screens (even Puffy had a role in Oliver Stone's new football movie, until they parted ways earlier this year).

And now LL Cool J seems ready too, ready to reshape his large persona to fit roles and to rethink his winner-take-all position when in the same frame with other performers. It was clear to most anyone watching Deep Blue Sea that LL Cool J has arrived at a certain peace with himself. In John McTiernan's cleverly wacky underwater-action pic -- which includes slices and dices from Titanic, Aliens, Jaws, and The Terminator (a heady mix that suggests yet again that McTiernan wants to be James Cameron) -- he's a considerable presence, simultaneously dynamic and compassionate as a Bible-quoting, self-evaluating, big-risk-taking cook: when he's on screen, it's hard to take your eyes off him (even when there's a way-cool and speedy digital shark looming nearby).

In Too DeepWhile Deep Blue Sea does have those sharks going for it (not to mention a brief, show-stopping turn by Samuel Jackson), In Too Deep doesn't have much else except LL Cool J (and several cameos by hiphop or hiphop-related artists, like Nas, Jermaine Dupris, Mya, Sticky Fingaz, and Shyheim). The movie wants so badly to be insightful and fresh regarding the dangers and travails of undercover narcotics work, but it seems mired in cliches rather than the real life experience from which it ostensibly draws. Co-writers and -producers Paul Aaron and Michael Henry Brown (the latter wrote Dead Presidents) say that they carved their story out of conversations with undercover cops and dealers.

That they and Australian director Rymer (who made the affecting Angel Baby, about junkies in love) have come up with such stock characters suggests either that the drug business is indeed full of predictable behaviors and personalities, or that it's so outrageous that it's beyond telling: the only way to approximate it is through familiar images and ideas. Or maybe this movie has the misfortune to arrive in theaters some seven years after Bill Duke's Deep Cover, in which Larry Fishburne gives a flat-out brilliant as a cop caught up in his own undercover identity, questioning the perfidious, racist system he serves.

In In Too Deep, the cop is Jeff Cole (Omar Epps). During his five years undercover in Cincinnati, he faces similar questions, but acts out his responses in ways more like Johnny Depp in Donnie Brasco than Fishburne. That is, he turns mean, player-style, toward the women in his life, namely his sweet, unbelievably patient dancer-girlfriend Myra (Nia Long, who has little to do as an extension of Jeff but look serene or sad) and his seasoned surveillance monitor Detective Wilson (Pam Grier). He apparently learns this behavior from his dealer associates, in particular the big cheese named, so perfectly, God (LL Cool J). It's true that you never see God abuse "his" woman (Veronica Webb) physically, but he treats her and understands her as property, just as he sees his young son as heir to his wealth and reputation. Sure, he leaves "Little Boo-Boo" in a car seat while he and Jeff beat the shit out of a guy who owes him money, brutally slamming his head against the car window while the baby shrieks inside.

In Too DeepAs appalling and ruthless as he is, God, has a rationale for his actions, one that he's spent time constructing: it's about respect and maintaining order, which make him rich enough to give back to the community when Thanksgiving comes around. While he's hardly sensitive (you see him punish one traitor by ramming a pool cue up his rectum), he is seductive. And while Jeff is determined to bring God down, he's also impressed by his new friend's utter loyalty, genuine thoughtfulness, and solid resistance to "the man." Embodying the "lure of the streets," he acts out the macho camaraderie, excitement, and violence in ways that almost make sense. The "sense" tends to be signalled, however, by changes in Jeff's hair: when his head is shaved, he's undercover, when he's wearing twists, he's the solid citizen.

Compared to Jeff's official boss (Stanley Tucci), God is warm and giving. His devotion to family almost makes Jeff's nearly crossing over to the dark side seem plausible. And then you remember that he's terrible, frightening, and vicious when he believes he must be. God lives in a world where the cops are the natural enemy, where corruption is the norm, where drugs are a means to ends, not a matter of morality. For all his practicality, he remains a poet of sorts, an alluring and charismatic figure. You can imagine him on a stage, pronouncing his faith, creating his own beat. It's too bad that the film doesn't have his back.

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