IN TOO DEEP
Film Review © 1999 by Trip Reynolds
Urban Crime Drama
Directed by Michael Rymer; Screenplay by Michael Henry Brown and Paul Aaron
Starring Omar Epps (as undercover detective Jeff Cole/J. Reid), LL Cool J (as bad guy Dwayne Gittens a.k.a. "GOD"), Nia Long (as Cole's girlfriend Myra), Stanley Tucci (as Coles' police captain boss Preston Boyd), Hill Harper (as Gittens' flunky bad guy Breezy T), and Pam Grier (as detective Angela Wilson).
Hollywood has a history of handling Black-audience-oriented crime dramas different than White-audience-oriented (a.k.a. "mainstream") crime dramas. This is not to say that one is generally handled better than the other but different. With all things being even, this film is an example of how comparably financed, produced, written, directed and acted crime dramas are less about Black or White but, more importantly, these films tell a story that just happens to feature people of a particular ethnic group. Race, sex and other issues are important, but if the story doesn't rise above the obvious, frankly, the movie is wasting our time. Fortunately, like 1990's State of Grace (featuring Sean Penn) here's a film that rises well above the cliché of its genre.
Story is about young, first-time undercover detective Jeff Cole, played by Omar Epps, who jumps for an opportunity to go after the local Cincinnati bad guy named "GOD", brilliantly played by LL Cool J. Typical of this genre, as undercover cop J. Reid, Epps becomes so immersed in his undercover work that he begins to lose track of his identity. Realizing this, Cole's boss Preston Boyd, played solidly albeit by-the-numbers by Stanley Tucci, indefinitely pulls Cole from the undercover assignment. During this period he meets love interest Myra, played by Nia Long. Long plays her role in typical good-girl-meets-tormented-cop fashion but little else. Again, typical for this genre, Long's performance includes a gratuitous nude modeling scene, a scream and a good-bye scene.
To prove himself, there's a drive-by-shooting scene where J. Reid aggressively tries (but not seriously) to kill an enemy of GOD. This was an exciting scene, but to make this a better film, the screenplay could have made the characters as smart as the audience watching the film. For example, in 1999 before allowing a new "player" to join a gang surely a criminal with any brains would conduct - at nearly no cost - thorough background checks via private, local, state, federal and Internet sources. If film had stepped out-of-the-box more often this could have been a great film instead of a better-than-mediocre film.
Yet despite the familiar ground, film honestly brings a few subtle twists to make it worthwhile. This is largely achieved by director Michael Rymer's shot selection, editing by Dany Cooper, and the performance of LL Cool J. Several scenes capture a certain intimacy, from calm (as GOD handles parenting responsibilities for his new born) to abruptly shocking (as GOD rather intensely shows the relationship between a pool stick and rectum of an underling who betrayed him). In this film LL Cool J presents himself as an actor, like Ving Rhames, truly deserving of even greater starring roles. From the first reel, film clearly established GOD as a "bad guy" but LL Cool J believably brought warmth and caring to his character then turned him into sheer menacing terror to become the most watchable element of this film.
Despite her fairly recent success in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown and her current starring role on cabler Showtime's Linc's Place, presented but missing in action was Pam Grier. True, good starring roles for women are hard to come by and even harder to develop for women of color. As the Black Sophia Loren, here's an actress that still has the chops but still hasn't had the opportunity to really shine. Whenever she's in the same scene, Grier's detective Wilson clearly outclassed and overpowered Epps' detective Cole. Grier has a strong physical presence on screen and she will dominate a scene unless an actor (like a Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep, etc.) has a comparable presence. Sadly, bit roles are good for staying active but maybe it's time for Ms. Grier to follow Halle Berry 's example (Introducing Dorothy Dandridge) and produce her own projects.
Film is capably directed Michael Rymer.
Film has a sharp running length of 104 minutes and fine technical credits.
Recommendation: You should see the film, rent it, and yes, buy it.