Deep Cover – The Criterion Collection (Blu-ray Review)

The great thing about this surprise Criterion Collection choice, Bill Duke’s 1992 undercover cop thriller Deep Cover, is that it’s a great film, regardless of its placement in Criterion’s extensive library. As much as I dig the collection, it’s not hard to see a curious lack of films directed by Black Americans. Whether or not this is the first in a series of attempts to help change up that balance (remember, a Melvin Van Peebles box set is coming soon), getting a chance to revisit this well made 90s film was certainly worthwhile, and the work done to restore the movie has paid off immensely.



Laurence Fishburne (still credited as “Larry”) stars as Officer Russell Stevens, a well-intentioned cop. He is recruited by Charles Martin Smith’s DEA Agent Carver to go undercover in LA to pose as a low-level drug dealer. Stevens (as “John Hull”) will have to infiltrate an intricate network and work his way up the latter to get to the South American importers. Along the way, Hull eventually teams up with Jeff Goldblum’s David Jason, a Jewish lawyer who finds himself quickly seduced by the dark side of criminal activities. As the two find themselves deeper and deeper embedded into the corrupt world of illegal narcotics.

Following films such as King of New York and New Jack City, let alone Boyz n the Hood, which had Fishburne tackling similar subject matter from a different angle, Deep Cover stands out for a good reason. It is a neo-noir informed by the War on Drugs and the effects this has had on the Black community, specifically. Featuring hallmark noir elements that include detached narration, morally flexible characters, and a certain level of pulpiness, Duke makes very specific choices in telling this story. Still, the added thematic elements push it ahead of other crime dramas, given that level of complexity.

Fishburne is excellent here. He plays into the persona of a man who refused to ever drink, take drugs, or involve himself in any level of corruption. At the same time, the audience is fully aware of the dark journey his character will have to take from early on. And yet, much like he’s often been able to do, we never feel he’s out of control. It’s the other characters around Fishburne’s undercover character who make life difficult.

Regardless of what side of the law they are on, Fishburne and others, such as Wesley Snipes, could hold themselves in these films types of films in a way that always made them appear smarter than anyone in the room. Even when they don’t have all of the information, they carry themselves at a certain level. This film relies on natural presence to bring out certain qualities while using specific imagery to communicate the divide between different groups.

I found that to be fascinating for the world of noir, which is, of course, generally viewed from the perspective of white characters. I love film noir. There are so many examples that stand out as masterpieces of cinema. For a movie like this (among a few others), watching the nature of the times affect how a plot like this plays out from a different perspective, complete with its own history, means better rounding out certain characters, without relying on pulpy dialogue to get the viewer there.

At the same time, as a stylish crime drama, there’s plenty of other factors working in this film’s favor. Before settling into a particular type of character, Goldblum fits in here as one who purposefully sticks out. It’s part of the point. A guy like this, who wouldn’t necessarily be associated with this type of environment, becomes the worst of everyone thanks to the power and the allure of ill-gotten money.

There’s excellent work from other notable black character actors such as Clarence Williams III, Roger Guenveur Smith, and Glynn Turman. Steeped in atmosphere and plenty of 90s clothing/dress styles on display, one gets a lot out of watching these various performances, how the tension plays out between the characters and more elements that further allow an identity for the film to take shape.

Even with offbeat and big performances, Duke is no slouch when it comes to vision. With deliberate cuts, framing that pulls the viewer closer, and one of the wildest wipes I’ve seen in movies, the character actor/prolific TV and film director puts plenty of effort into the production to capitalize on the genre in a unique manner. While separated by rating and many other factors, between this and 1990’s Dick Tracy, these were good times for serious stories delving into the world of crime through comic book-like means.

But how far away from reality is any of this? Sure, there are exaggerated story occurrences, action scenes featuring limos versus cop cars, and a whole lotta leeway for an undercover cop involved in murder and drug dealing. Still, cartoonishly evil things have occurred in real life involving the U.S. Government’s War on Drugs. While entertaining, Deep Cover is not about fun and games. It takes a stylish approach, but so do the best entries in various genres when it comes to having more to say about life.


Encoding: MPEG -4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Details: This new digital transfer was created in 16-bit 4K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director film scanner at WB Motion Picture Imaging in Burbank, CA, from the 35mm A/B negative and approved by director Bill Duke.

Clarity/Detail: This is a wonderful transfer that maintains the theatrical quality of its original release. Looking clean and crisp while reflecting the urban grittiness of the setting, this restored transfer does a great job of putting that level of atmosphere on display. The clarity of various scenes, such as the indoor environments of these crime bosses, has all that’s needed to show a proper understanding of how a good quality picture can enhance everything.

Depth: The staging of this film makes for a good understanding of character placement, with no sense of flatness in watching these people move around the various environments. A climactic sequence set next to a moving ship emphasizes this well.

Black Levels: The noir-ish feel of the film allows for plenty of darker scenes taking place at night, outdoors, and they look great. Shadow work and more are all handled well for this disc. No sign of crushing either.

Color Reproduction: Thanks to a flashiness inherent to some characters, colors pop when they need to. Reds, in particular, stand out well in a film that allows for various clothing items, along with the blood to fill the screen at times.

Flesh Tones: The detail level seen in the actual characters is impressive, given the many close-ups on the faces of Fishburne and others.

Noise/Artifacts: The film looks nice and clean, with no issues in sight.


Audio Format(s): English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0

Subtitles: English SDH

Details: The original 2.0 surround soundtrack was remastered from the original 35mm LTRT magnetic tracks using Avid’s Pro Tools and iZotope RX.

Dynamics: From the beginning, the soundtrack takes hold and doesn’t let the viewer go. Deep Cover has an aggressive soundtrack featuring lots of dialogue, gunplay, car chases, and more. It all comes through impressively, and the 90s music in this film, particularly the theme by Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg, is all great to hear on this remastered mix.

Low-Frequency Extension: N/A

Surround Sound Presentation: This 2.0 track only spreads so far, but there’s plenty to enjoy about what’s accomplished on this audio track.

Dialogue Reproduction: Everyone is heard loud and clear.


Short of a commentary track, this is a terrific set of extras, featuring multiple interviews and conversations delving into various aspects of the film, filmmaking, impact on different parts of the industry, and more.

Features Include:

  • Bill Duke (HD, 18:16) – Recorded remotely in 2021, director Bill Duke discusses black culture in film, his career as an actor and director, and his efforts to make Deep Cover.
  • Laurence Fishburne and Bill Duke (HD, 56:33) – Recorded at a 2028 AFI Conservatory seminar, the star and director discuss the nature of the film, and films of that time, following a screening. Elvis Mitchell moderates.
  • Racquel J. Gates and Michael B. Gillespie (HD, 35:37) – The film scholars provide thoughts on Deep Cover and how it stands when looking at the Black film boom of the early 90s, along with the noir genre.
  • Claudrena N. Harold and Oliver Wang (HD, 17:36) – The film scholar and the professor/podcaster talk about the film’s title track by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg and how it impacted hip-hop culture.
  • Trailer (HD, 0:44)
  • PLUS – An essay by author Michael B. Gillespie


Deep Cover is a terrific crime drama that takes on heavy themes with plenty of style. It’s not been given nearly enough attention over the years, so I’m glad to see the Bill Duke film get its due, thanks to Criterion. As far as this new Blu-ray presentation, a terrific video/audio restoration goes a long way of delivering the goods for a film that certainly benefits from looking and sounding as crisp as it does. Plus, the extra features add so much great discussion. Any neo-noir fans or those looking to see more of Black cinema are in for a treat.

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Gamer, Comic Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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