Film noir hits the mean streets of 1990s Los Angeles in this stylish and subversive underworld odyssey from veteran actor-director Bill Duke. Laurence Fishburne stars as Russell Stevens/John Hull, a police officer who goes undercover as the partner of a dangerously ambitious cocaine trafficker (Jeff Goldblum) in order to infiltrate and bring down a powerful Latin American drug ring operating in LA. But the further Stevens descends into this ruthless world of money, violence, and power, the more disillusioned he becomes—and the harder to make out the line between right and wrong, crime and justice. Steeped in shadowy, neon-soaked atmosphere and featuring Dr. Dre’s debut solo single, this unsung gem of the nineties’ Black cinema explosion delivers a riveting character study and sleek action thrills alongside a furious moral indictment of America and the devastating failures of the war on drugs.
The Criterion Collection presents Bill Duke’s Deep Cover on Blu-ray, delivering the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on a dual-layer disc. The 1080p/24hz high-definition encode comes from a new 4K restoration, which was in turn scanned from the 35mm original negative.
This isn’t a film I would have ever expected to be at the top of any sort of list to receive a new 4K restoration, but in what is, for me, a wonderful surprise it appears it was, and it comes out looking incredibly strong through this disc's presentation. The film rarely comes off super crisp or sharp, which I think is just representative of the original photography and the film’s look, but detail levels still manage to come off impressive, and the onscreen textures from the street settings to Goldblum’s (later) slicked back hair are rendered cleanly and look natural. Grain isn’t all that heavy, but it is there, rendered cleanly enough, and the image has that film texture that I like. Smoky scenes end up looking quite good with clean delineation for the most part, but unfortunately in what is now seeming to be a more common issue as of late with Criterion’s presentations, banding artifacts are present (if mildly so) in some sequences, noticeable in a club scene and a handful of other scenes where the frame has a bright light source in a darker setting.
Colours come out looking good as well, going for a more natural vibe, while that aforementioned club sequence throws in some bright blues and reds that come out looking great. Black levels are also nice and deep, leading to some wonderful looking nighttime shots. The restoration has also cleaned up things remarkably, nary a mark nor a scratch visible. I admittedly haven’t seen the film since maybe around 2000 on cable (I never picked up the DVD waiting for something “better”) but I recall a lot of marks in those showing, a bit surprising for what was then a newer film, so seeing it so pristine now is a wonderful little bonus. Ultimately, I thought this looked great, despite a couple of little setbacks.
Again, I don’t have the DVD, but I’m pretty sure it came with a 5.1 remix. Criterion sticks to the original 2-channel surround track, presented here in DTS-HD MA. It’s sharp and clear, dialogue showing excellent fidelity and the action scenes showing a wide bit of range. Stereo effects in the front are great, moving appropriately, but the surrounds (working together) seem to be limited primarily to music and some effects. Still, it’s mixed well and is effective enough.
One of the reasons I never picked up the New Line DVD was because it was a barebones edition and I always figured (rather foolishly at the time I guess) it would get some sort of special edition at some point. Finally, a couple of decades later, it appears the wait has finally paid off.
The disc starts things off with a new interview featuring director Bill Duke, who, for 18-minutes, talks a little about his directing and theater background, having worked with Gilbert Moses, touching on some projects he had worked on. He would then go on to gain notable roles in Hollywood (Car Wash, Predator) that allowed him to pursue a directing gigs for both television (he notes he was the first black director for the television series Dallas) and film. This then carries him through to talk about Deep Cover, where he talks about key sequences in the film (like setting the right tone with the opening) and the actors he's proud to have pulled in for it, noting the chemistry between Laurence Fishburne and Jeff Goldblum as being the film's strongest aspect.
It's not terribly in-depth on the film unfortunately (a commentary would have been great) but it’s a nice lead-in to a more thorough discussion around the film, which comes from a Q&A recorded after a screening of the film at the AFI in 2018, hosted by Elvis Mitchell and featuring Duke and Fishburne. This one fleshes out more details around the production, which was, to my shock, originally written as a sequel to the thriller Internal Affairs starring Richard Gere and Andy Garcia! It sounds as though the project fell apart, but it still somehow made it to Duke. The two then talk about the eclectic cast, the film’s characters, and even share stories on how the film impacted them, like how Marlon Brando called up Fishburne to praise him for his performance in the film. The two also take audience questions. I think a new Duke/Fishburne interview or commentary would have been great, but this still fills the gap nicely, running a lengthy 56-minutes.
Criterion then includes a couple of new interview pairings. Claudrena N. Harold and Oliver Wang pop up (remotely) to discuss the film’s title track by Dr. Dre and featuring Snoop Dogg, the first track for the former after breaking up from N.W.A., and the first time the latter appeared on an album (which really makes me feel old right now). The two recall first hearing the song and the impact it had for them before talking about how the song fits in the context of hip-hop at the time, even offering some historical background, and the social issues addressed in this song and others. Oddly, Criterion doesn't include the music video for the song.
Also providing some great context around the film and its time of release are film scholars Racquel J. Gates and Michael B. Gillespie, who discuss this period of the 90s where there was a bit of a boom in films featuring predominantly black stories, pointing out this only seems to happen throughout Hollywood history when studios are losing money and need to expand their audience. They also note how these stories started crossing genres, with Deep Cover clearly being of the noir variety. From here they pick out and analyze the noir elements from characters (none of whom are clearly good nor bad) to the film’s general look before also looking at how the film handles race, particularly in its “complicated” (to say the least) interracial friendship at the center. A great little discussion and analysis.
The disc then closes with a trailer for the film (that looks to be a trailer you would have found on a VHS tape back in the 90s) while the insert features an essay by Gillespie, expanding on topics covered in the interview found on the disc. In all, it has some strong material on it. I’m a little disappointed Fishburne and Goldblum didn’t sit down for a new interview, whether together or separately, and I think a commentary from Duke would have been great, but as it is, the features do an admirable job covering the film’s production and explaining its importance in the context of its time of release.
A film that I thought would never receive the love I felt it deserved gets a solid new special edition from Criterion, who deliver a nice looking 4K restoration and some great supplementary material. Well worth picking up.