I have a confession to make. The inspiration for this piece was not Laurence Fishburne (credited in the opening as "Larry"), but Jeff Goldblum. His role in Bill Duke's Deep Cover is one of my favorite roles for the actor -- a chance to see him play a complex part as a drug-addled family man/insecure Jewish lawyer/sexually curious villian. But, the title of this article is "Their Best Role", and, to me, Goldblum's best role is still in David Cronenberg's The Fly. It would've felt dishonest to call the David Jason character Goldblum's personal best.
When I started to think about the movie's leading man, though, I began to consider that Fishburne may never have been better than he is here. He's settled into being a reliable character actor, in movies (Armored) and television (CSI), but there was a time in the early/mid 90's (basically immediately following Boyz In the Hood) when Fishburne was making a decent stab at becoming a honest-to-goodness leading man. Deep Cover was a film riding on the crest of a wave of low-budget "urban" crime stories spawned by the success of New Jack City during that time, but it stands apart due to the character work of the leads, FIshburne and Goldblum.
Fishburne is John Hull, a cynical cop brought in to work as a deep cover operative as part of a federal drug sting by Agent Carver (Charles Martin Smith). He ingratiates himself with the local dealers in Los Angeles, by proving his worth as a more reliable low-level dealer than the sniveling tweaker they currently use (Roger G. Smith, in another possible career-best role). Soon, Hull is climbing the narcotics ladder, helped by his instant friendship with David Jason, an unscrupulous lawyer who has aspirations of creating a synthetic cocaine that will change the drug biz forever. Hull is repeatedly forced by his superiors to make decisions beyond his moral grasp, and ends up making a chilling self-discovery -- he's not a cop playing a drug dealer; he's a drug dealer playing a cop.
David Jason describes Hull at one point as a panther, a "jungle beast," before pushing the metaphor into uncomfortably racist territory, but he's sort of right. You get the feeling that Hull is going to either pounce or melt-down completely; he looks at everyone with slit-eyed animosity and distrust. He's quiet, his voice just slightly more than a monotone growl. That smart, feral animal is the real John Hull.
The fake John Hull, the one that can move product, only appears in a couple of scenes. In these moments, Hull is playing the salesman, pretending to be "street," forcing himself to appear relaxed. The phoniness of this version of Hull is reinforced by a voice-over from Fishburne, a device that was singled out by critic Roger Ebert as "poetic and colorful." At first, I asked myself if the narration was truly necessary, but I realized in some of the later scenes, when Hull isn't acting like himself, that they are. They're the wink to the audience that the laid-back drug dealer is a hoax, and that the real Hull is a man conflicted, fighting back his constant disgust with himself and the people that he interacts with.
Fishburne's biggest acting scene comes at the end of the film, after he's burned his bridges with the State Department, when a drug deal goes wrong. He gets his moment of melt-down; he hits rock bottom, and it's one of the film's best scenes. Deep Cover is definitely a product of its time ('90s fashions and gangsta rap glamour) and some of the clunkiest dialogue in the movie is delivered with such ham-fisted sincerity that it lingers in the air like a stink, but none of that is Fishburne's fault. In fact, Fishburne and Goldblum elevate the material, turning a rote cop drama into something that feels a little offbeat. In Deep Cover, Fishburne plays the hero like a villain, dangerous and smoldering, and the film wouldn't have worked as well without him in the role.