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Weekly Alibi In Too Deep

Thug Lite

By Devin D. O'Leary

AUGUST 30, 1999:  Sometime in the early '90s, gangster epics gave way to gangsta epics as inner-city ethnic filmmakers claimed the cops-and-robbers genre for their own. Warring street gangs replaced aging Italian capos, and the tired genre found a new life with a new soundtrack. Gone was Matt Monroe. In his place was Master P. Now, it seems, every rap star on the block is obliged to, at one time or another, leave his mark in the gangsta film arena. It's become almost a rite of passage -- like country singers and rehab. In Too Deep is the latest entry in this urban crimewave, and LL Cool J is the rapper-turned-actor in question.

In Too Deep doesn't exactly chart any new territory, but it covers enough conventions of the genre to please the niche audiences it's aiming at. The gritty cinematography, the booming soundtrack, the Scorsese-esque violence -- it's all on display here. Omar Epps, hot off The Mod Squad (although "hot" probably isn't the best term), stars as Jeffrey Cole, an eager young police academy graduate who's chomping at the bit to land himself an undercover assignment. Since he grew up in the projects of Cincinnati, Cole seems like the perfect streetwise man to infiltrate the criminal empire of a drug kingpin known as "God" (the aforementioned LL Cool J). As one should probably expect, during the two years of his investigation Cole gets in a little too deep (hence the title), and the gangsta life starts rubbing off on him. Cole's boss (Stanley Tucci) wants to pull him from the assignment, but Cole is sure he's inches away from breaking God's operation wide open. Will Cole bust God, or will he crack under the pressure?

Epps does reasonably well with what he's given. His character isn't really handed much in the way of background, so the extreme enthusiasm that he demonstrates for his rather deadly and psychologically damaging line of work is a bit difficult to fathom. LL Cool J, heretofore given only small sidekick roles (as in the recent Deep Blue Sea), fares surprisingly well and makes a strong impression as the hulking crime lord who treats his friends and brutalizes his enemies (many of whom, of course, were former friends). Tucci is all mannered speeches and stiff upper lip in a rather thankless role as "The Captain in Charge Guy Who Bitches Out Rogue Cops." (Put him in a white suit and he'd be doing an eerily accurate imitation of Edward James Olmos in "Miami Vice.")

Mario Van Peebles' early genre-busting gangsta saga New Jack City covered largely the same territory as this film nearly a decade ago. In Too Deep aims for much more earnest territory, and comes off as far less entertaining than Van Peebles' over-the-top classic. Although allegedly "inspired" by real-life gangstas, LL Cool J's God is a second-generation xerox of Wesley Snipes' Nino Brown from New Jack City (right down to giving away free turkeys to the happy neighborhood residents for Thanksgiving). In Too Deep tries to concentrate on the relationship between Cole and God, but we never actually see the two connect in any way, shape or form -- so it's hard to imagine why Cole is so conflicted by movie's end. The Ken Wahl TV series "Wiseguy" and the 1992 Laurence Fishburne feature Deep Cover did the same "undercover cop seduced by the dark side" shtick and pulled it off with much more gritty realism and streetwise pathos.

The mood pendulum swings a bit wide at times as well. An extended sequence in which Cole is pulled from the job, forced to go live in the countryside, take photography classes at a community college and fall in love with a corn-fed model seems wildly out of place, for example.

Visually, In Too Deep cops its palate from frequent Spike Lee collaborator Malik Hassan Sayeed (cinematographer on Clockers, He Got Game, Girl 6, Belly and others) -- all blown whites, bleeding blacks and saturated neon colors. Though this look fits the mood of the film and has become a style onto itself thanks to a spate of recent hip hop videos, it occasionally makes for some eye-straining sequences. Toss the film's slang-heavy dialogue on top of this, and you've got a dual strain on audience senses.

Although In Too Deep occasionally rises above its hackneyed plot, it never reaches for anything grander than rap-fueled exploitation. (A token cameo by blaxploitation queen Pam Grier at least hints at what In Too Deep is aiming for.) A more consistent mood and a more concentrated dramatic arc, though, would have served the film better. ... At least we've got a kickin' LL Cool J soundtrack video on MTV to look forward to.


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