Mike Flaherty
February 11, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

In Too Deep; Blue Streak

As Hollywood has taught us again and again and again, things in the big, bad urban underground aren’t always what they seem. Judging from a couple of new-to-video releases, apparently things in the urban-underground-film genre aren’t either.

Hinging on instances of assumed identity run wild, they seem to caution, Be careful whom you wish to ape; you may become him. But more telling — and ironic — is that, while ostensibly putting an inspired twist on the types of roles awarded to black actors in Tinseltown, in the end, deliberately or not, they show us that those old casting standbys, the jester and the thug, are still alive and well.

Taking a page from the undercover-cop drama as morality play (most recently explored in Donnie Brasco), In Too Deep stars Omar Epps (The Mod Squad) as Jeff Cole, a Cincinnati detective who goes undercover to topple a drug kingpin unassumingly named God (LL Cool J). Cole is confident bordering on cocky and — you guessed it — plays by his own rules. As he works his way up the organizational ladder, Cole (masquerading as an Ohio badass named J. Reid) succeeds beyond even his own expectations, earning a place as God’s right-hand man.

But, as proficient as Epps is, it’s LL Cool J who supplies Deep‘s flavor. As God, he fashions a benevolent despot who treats the local have-nots to Thanksgiving dinner and helps struggling tenement dwellers to pay their rent — asking only that he be able to use said apartments to conduct the occasional coke deal. What a guy.

In fact, he’s a sadistic brute who punishes one disloyal crew member by hog-tying him atop a pool table and, cue stick in hand…well, let’s just say, all the chalk in the world isn’t going to make this particular shot any more comfortable.

That’s as ”hard” as things get, thanks to a refreshingly measured script by Michael Henry Brown (Dead Presidents) and Paul Aaron. Unfortunately, it goes into free-fall during the film’s gunshot-riddled climax, as the heretofore straight-arrow Cole, having apparently found the allure of the gangster life irresistible, all too inscrutably switches allegiances and tries to protect his villainous prey.

The bust finally made (thanks to Cole’s more resolute colleagues), God still can’t believe that Reid is a cop. Deep, on the other hand, seems to be saying, You can take the cop out of the hood, but…

The undercover-cop genre gets a less-than-hysterical upending in Blue Streak, which features Martin Lawrence as a thief who poses as a detective in order to right a felonious deed gone wrong, but in the process winds up teaching the legit law enforcers a thing or two about crime fighting.

In a sleek opening sequence, Miles Logan (Lawrence) and crew perpetrate a $17 million diamond heist, but not before their boneheaded wheelman Tulley (comedian Dave Chappelle) draws the attention of the police. Before getting nabbed, Logan flees to a construction site and stashes the gem in the air-conditioning duct of a building-to-be, thus avoiding a larceny rap and hiding the gem where he can retrieve it later on. But said strategy backfires when, released from the joint two years later, he discovers that the now-complete building is home to a police precinct.

Before long — and after an utterly laugh-free scene wherein he tries to scam his way in as a gap-toothed pizza-delivery guy — Logan returns, this time posing as a transferred detective. The gambit works too well, as he’s pressed into a partnership with a corn-fed dick (Home Fries‘ Luke Wilson) who, along with the rest of the squad, is wowed by Logan’s uncanny insight into the criminal mind.

What’s less impressive, however, is Lawrence’s ability to carry this flick, as it’s only in his scenes with Wilson (which lands them in rat-a-tat Rush Hour territory) and Chappelle that Streak approaches any real yuks. Dare I suggest a full-length buddy pairing with either of them would’ve been a lot more fruitful than Lawrence’s strained vamping?

In the end, the joker retrieves his bauble and the coulda-been criminal his dignity, but not before making a queasy concession to a depressing showbiz status quo.

In Too Deep: B- Blue Streak: C

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