In the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — seven from 1992 (the extra in a forthcoming double-feature column) and six from 2002. The self-imposed rules of the column: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.

For most lily-white elderly millennials raised in the suburbs or the sticks, 1991’s New Jack City represented a cinematic introduction to the inner workings of drug trafficking.

That’s not to say we didn’t know about drugs themselves. Remember the D.A.R.E. program? The one that had in-class, in-uniform and intimidating visits from law enforcement officers, flimsy pledges to just say no, and an even flimsier theme song they conflated with unbreakable oath just because you sang along to a cassette recording of it in an elementary school gym? Yes, D.A.R.E. told us all about drugs and that they were bad. Endless studies found D.A.R.E. also ignited a generation’s curiosity to explore such mythic contraband. What’s a dare for if not to be taken?

So we knew about drugs, just not the drudgery of them as a business in the way the parents or guardians we knew had jobs. In its tale of drug kingpin Nino Brown’s futile quest for upwardly mobile legitimacy, New Jack City changed that for an entire age group … even as it spiffed the sort of story James Cagney had been telling 40 years earlier. Taken on the terms of an electric, engaging action film, Mario Van Peebles’ film is fine. But its flaws are more readily apparent now, namely in its ideological clash between blaxploitation roots, big-studio demands and, most of all, maintaining a straight-line posture of law and order as the heroes in the war on drugs.

Halfway through New Jack City, Nino basically becomes Tony Montana as a Bond villain, complete with a cane blade. The necessary narrative counterpoint of the cops can’t possibly compare with the charisma that Wesley Snipes brings to the role, so the film leans on tired notions of lawman righteousness. This was Ice-T’s first film role, and the alleged concerns he had about whether playing a cop would corrupt the cred he’d created as a socially conscious rapper holds him back far too often. Then there’s Judd Nelson as his adorkably hard partner, who might as well be playing a member of Color Me Badd in a movie that also features the group’s songs. Further, New Jack City pretends the demise of Chris Rock’s Pookie, a doomed addict conscripted by these cops as an informant, represents the tragic death of a friend rather than failed means to carceral ends. Lastly, there’s the film’s closing note: “If we don’t confront the problem realistically without empty promises and platitudes …” If you find this even a slightly pragmatic consideration of drug blight, well, Nino Brown has a bridge off which to drop you.

If New Jack City was the D.A.R.E., 1992’s Deep Cover was the lacerating truth. This film plays like a straight-edge blade slowly and sternly swiped over a deeply ugly, but immediately recognizable, American underbelly. No cream, no delicate touch, just a blade doing its inevitable work without regard for the blood that may bubble beneath it. Working far outside comfortable boundaries of conventional morality, Deep Cover is the type of cop thriller where the codes with which an audience arrives are cast aside altogether. It could not give a shit about the spectacle of the battle between good and evil most people want to see. It simply wonders which side will show cannier instincts for craven self-preservation. All the graphic violence feels like a thorough autopsy of decay at the dark center of American authority. And in its story of an undercover cop, it asks you to consider not the tragedy of the self he loses but the practicality of the self he finds.

These dichotomies are perfectly dissected through the film’s central performances. One is a lead turn from Laurence Fishburne, who plays an undercover DEA proxy named Russell Stevens Jr. who later goes by the alias of John Hull and for whom Deep Cover was the last film crediting him as “Larry.” The other is a supporting turn from Jeff Goldblum, delivering some of his career’s best work, as David Jason, a lawyer dabbling in cocaine sales who becomes Hull’s entry point into L.A.’s drug trade just as David realizes his time in the moonlight is waning.

Fishburne was fresh off his critically acclaimed role as Furious Styles in 1991’s Boyz n the Hood and more than a decade of largely character-actor parts in ventures ranging from Apocalypse Now to Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Always more Bill Cobb than Will Smith, Fishburne was never all that suited to witty quips or buddy-cop banter. He had (and retains) too much leonine intensity for that, as Deep Cover itself even comments upon and utilizes to great effect. 

Meanwhile, it had also been arguably six years since Goldblum had any pop-culture cache. His eventual transformation of David into a tough guy feels like play-acting silliness until you recognize that a man who feels like he could simply flip the switch to turn it on and off is perhaps the most dangerous of all. There’s a reason the camera lingers so long on a labyrinth of legal books in David’s library, as if they are a secret lever he can pull to stay out of significant trouble.

Although most would recognize Bill Duke from his supporting roles in Commando and Predator, he came to prominence as a TV director prior to that — helming episodes of everything from Knots Landing and Falcon Crest to Matlock and Miami Vice. Duke’s feature debut came a year earlier, with A Rage in Harlem. Inasmuch as New Line Cinema was then major beyond Freddy Krueger films, Deep Cover represented Duke’s big studio debut. 

Alongside cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, Duke drenches Deep Cover in a suffusion of red light as if tagging the entire sphere of existence as one gigantic vice district. Although the screen-wipe transitions from Duke and editor John Carter are generally outmoded now, they clearly call back to noir and blaxploitation classics from which Deep Cover was derived. They also feel like expressions of an inescapable proscenium around which everyone in the film inhabits increasingly inescapable roles night after night until fact and fiction smear forever.

The quick-jabbing screenplay came from Michael Tolkin (an Academy Award nominee that year for adapting his own novel, The Player, which essentially opened the same week as Deep Cover) and Henry Bean, who wrote the underrated 1990 cop film Internal Affairs co-starring Richard Gere and Andy Garcia. Whether they quote urban crime fiction author Donald Goines or coin their own phrases, Tolkin and Bean vibrantly characterize the idea that American law is largely martialed as a legion force against true liberation from addiction. It’s remarkably lucid about the politics and potholes of what’s pushed as progress. “Forget this Judeo-Christian bullshit,” David says. “The same people that taught virtue are the very ones who enslaved us, baby.” Drugs and police are just flashier trades in which a food chain eventually flattens into an ouroboros. It also explores cultural expectations of masculinity through David’s Jewishness, Hull’s Blackness, and the Hispanic / Latino identities of the cocaine suppliers Hull is directed to dispatch. To Tolkin and Bean, America as a melting pot just means someone’s flesh is boiled down: “I think you know there’s no such thing as American anymore,” David says. “No Hispanics, no Japanese, no Blacks, no whites, no nothing. It’s just rich people and poor people. The three of us are rich, so we’re on the same side.”

The whole film is predicated on such ruthless distillation, and it’s essentially what DEA bigwig Carver (Charles Martin Smith) seeks from Russell Stevens, Jr. —a Cincinnati cop whom he sends to Los Angeles as drug dealer John Hull. We meet Carver baiting African-American cops with a question about what distinguishes a Black man from a piercing pejorative. The first responds with deference that gets him dismissed. The second threatens Carver with violence. When Stevens says the latter is the one that would even answer such a question, Carver knows he’s found his man. Stevens became a cop after seeing his addict father (Glynn Turman) gunned down after an attempted robbery (illustrated in a prologue with a slight visual echo of Touch of Evil). Carver seduces Stevens by telling him all his faults will become virtues undercover, enticing him with outlets for all his psychologically noted rage and repression. 

Carver is not the only one who uses Blackness as a point of essential aesthetic distance to his own ends. David does the same thing to Stevens, whom he comes to know as Hull. After Hull passes a test of loyalty that David’s existing Black supplier fails, David takes him as his “new model.” They indulge in ribald repartee. They quote Scarface. They rhapsodize about sexual fantasies fraught with racial privilege. Most of all, David and Hull strike an inherently antagonistic agreement of convenience. Hull is the layer of safety David needs between him and his suburban family. David is the path for Hull to nail kingpins Anton Gallegos (Arthur Mendoza) and Felix Barbosa (Gregory Sierra) … but perhaps not the politician who is their patron. (Yes, Deep Cover also explores the righteous veneer of drug policing as mere pretext for American insertion and deposition of international leaders — one built on constantly shifting sands.)

Eventually, Hull acquires a larger quantity of drugs than the DEA can simply buy with petty cash to pull from the streets; “You’re a drug dealer,” Carver tells him. “Sell drugs.” David’s desire to splinter off from the cartels and spin up his own designer drug trade drags Hull well over the line — up to and including a murder staged with necessary gravity. A voiceover line Tolkin and Bean give to Fishburne when it happens strikes a note of weary recognition regarding the crimes about which people care in this country: “I killed someone who looked like me,” he says, “and nothing happened.”

There is little action in Deep Cover outside of an extended car chase. Even that is stripped back to a violent, scrappy desperation — David viciously asserting himself against his tormentors and Hull screaming through one hairpin turn after another, struggling to preserve his cover. From here on out, Hull and David can no longer embolden or enable one another (and at this point, the notion of Stevens as a cop obliterated). They can only endanger and annihilate. Conrad E. Palmisano provides crisp and crackling second-unit work in this sequence, as authentic at establishing authentic, tactile senses of place as physical danger, with both Greg W. Elan’s stunt performers and Bill Young’s precision driving team hitting precise and professional beats.

With an incredible commitment and confidence to avoid the artifice of clear-cut answers, Deep Cover savagely but sagely unravels everyone’s best intentions into a no-win situation. It’s a thriller of sharp edges and ideas that borrows the patois and patina of noir, in which violent ends are not romanticized but simply just rationalized to diminished returns. Not for nothing is the film’s final image of a cemetery statue slathered in bird shit. We can erect all the monuments we want in the name of fallen value or virtue. In blending punchy poetry and smash-mouth realism, Deep Cover suggests that anything and everything can be befouled. It’s just a matter of time.