In Deep Sh--

Undercover-cop film swims in the shallow end.

In Too Deep.
Ladies love billiard balls: LL (left) and Omar weather a bad hair day.
Ladies love billiard balls: LL (left) and Omar weather a bad hair day.
LL Cool J is God, at least to the characters of In Too Deep. He's crime lord Dwayne Gittens, otherwise known as "God" to his peeps on the street; he acts as life-giver, protector, and judgment-maker for the inner-city dwellers of Cincinnati. He dotes on his newborn son, throws Thanksgiving dinner for an entire ghetto, and anally penetrates his best friend with a pool cue before twisting him in knots and leaving him dead in a trash bin after the dude does him wrong. Dwayne's an Old Testament sort of Yahweh.

He also controls 80 percent of the city's drug racket, and if you are in need of help, he'll gladly open a crack house in your apartment and get you on the pipe quicker than you can utter, "Mama said knock you out." That's why the cops want to put him away for good. The only man qualified for the job is rookie detective Jeff Cole (Omar Epps), a man so gifted at acting, his mother insists he can make anyone believe anything, even that he's a vicious young drug dealer — from Akron. The rub: What happens if Cole is too good at playing his role? What if an undercover agent gets . . . in too deep?

The amazing thing about the film is that this setup, though by-the-book familiar, actually works. The opening scene bristles with possibilities as Cole, "incognegro" as up-and-coming hoodlum J. Reid, must prove his worth to the gang by making a drive-by hit. The film cuts back and forth between the gangstas' rolling black Jeep and Cole in a police classroom, getting all Socratic on a bunch of newbie officers, asking them what they would do in the same situation. You can't refuse to pull the trigger; your cover will be blown. And you can't pop a cap in the brutha's ass; you'll be facing Murder One.

This is the complex reality of undercover police work — must be, since the film boldly states that it's based on a true story. (Which one? Well, that's not important.) And the film deftly handles those complexities, at least during its opening moments. Cole proves he's one of God's homeboys, but doesn't become a victim of his own "crime"; he passes enough tests to prove he can play rough with the big, bad boys. The beginning also hints at how easily economically disadvantaged folk can fall into the thug life. As God explains, "Black people in this country just want to feel a part of something." Who cares if Laurence Fishburne covered similar themes seven years ago in Deep Cover; it's not as though anyone stayed awake during that film, much less remembers it. At least In Too Deep keeps things interesting — during its first half-hour, anyway.

But it all comes crashing to a dead stop when Stanley Tucci, playing brash-but-really-concerned-deep-down top cop Preston D'Ambrosio, pulls Cole off the job because he's getting — again, you were warned — in too deep. Preston reminds Cole he's not just a cop, but a gifted photographer. So he ships the city-boy detective off to the country to get some much-needed R&R. There, Cole finds True Love in Myra (Nia Long), a dancer who makes extra money on the side. Happens every day.

When Cole pulls out, the film pulls out, even though he eventually talks his way back into undercover work on God's squad — against the wishes of D'Ambrosio. The second half of the film comes straight from the Wiseguy playbook: Cole wants back in, his boss wants him out, and the Feds (who appear out of nowhere) want Cole precisely because he's . . . in too deep. But any momentum built up early on has dissipated; the whole movie has been put out to pasture.

Suddenly and inexplicably, all the bad guys keep asking Cole whether he's a cop; so much for being the best at his job. Cole's bug-eyed non-responses — what, me? — make Omar Epps's performance in The Mod Squad look downright Oscar-worthy. But the importance of being earnest isn't lost on the boyz in the 'hood, because no one follows up on his suspicions. You get the sense Cole could wear a badge and dress blues and still be one of the fellas.

Then, everything about In Too Deep is earnest — stupidly earnest, comically earnest; it's not too far from the version of Serpico staged by the Max Fisher Players in Rushmore. (Maybe those kids will do the Broadway remake.) Pam Grier, once the queen of blaxploitation, seems to have been cast as a cop solely for her throwaway attitude. That in itself justifies her being sent alone into a drug bust, even though an entire DEA task force surrounds the building. LL Cool J likewise is here for his equally instant persona, which flows either sweet or sour — depending on whether he's playing with his child or cuing up his old pal. He's not in the film enough to define his character one way or another; his enormous dragon tattoo gets more character development.

The film's Big Message blares like a foghorn in a library, whether in the repeated images of children bearing witness to violence or in the D.A.R.E. dialogue. In case you missed it: Crime is bad. There's a moment, during The Big Showdown, when Cole must decide whether he's Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde: God yells at him, "Don't be stupid. Don't be stupid." Too late.

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