Strong lead performances and an easily exploitable rap-hip-hop soundtrack fuel “In Too Deep,” a formulaic but effectively gritty inner-city crime drama that should post above-average numbers in urban markets.
After so many years of dramas about aggressively flashy drug dealers and paranoid undercover cops, the genre conventions are pretty much set in stone. But “In Too Deep” likely is the first pic of its kind in which an up-and-coming out-of-towner is introduced as a major operator from — no kidding — Akron, Ohio. The intro prompts a suitably skeptical response from a Cincinnati hood: “What’d you do in Akron? Deal corn and shit?”
Omar Epps — fully recovered from “The Mod Squad” — heads the predominantly African-American cast as Jef Cole, a recent police academy graduate who’s eager to be a commando in the war on drugs. He gets a chance to “audition” as an undercover operative under the watchful eyes of a veteran detective (Pam Grier). Despite a near-fatal slip-up during a negotiation with Latino dealers, Cole proves he has enough of the right stuff to impress his hard-nosed commander (Stanley Tucci).
And so, despite his lack of experience, Cole gets a new identity — J. Reid, the baddest dude ever to come out of Akron — and a dangerous deep-cover assignment. He’s planted inside the organization of Dwayne Gittens (LL Cool J), a flamboyant drug kingpin whose hubris can be gauged by his self-applied nickname: God.
In his earthly kingdom of Cincinnati, God controls 80% of the drug traffic. And he’s more than willing to apply a swift sword — or a well-placed pool cue — to anyone who thwarts his will. Still, God has his nicer qualities: He funds neighborhood carnivals and aids underprivileged children. He also provides rent money for anyone in his inner-city realm who lets him store “business records” in his or her apartment.
Rapper-actor LL Cool J plays God with great conviction, especially when he’s regarding the new guy from Akron with equal measures of grudging respect and lingering suspicion. Just as important, he gives God more than enough charisma to complicate matters. Much of “In Too Deep” revolves around whether Cole/Reid might get too close to the drug kingpin, whose confidence he must gain. At one point, Cole’s commander is compelled to warn his impulsive young operative to “act more and care less.”
“In Too Deep” doesn’t exactly abound in surprise plot twists. Even so, Aussie director Michael Rymer (“Angel Baby”), does a good job in his first U.S. outing of infusing cliches with edgy persuasiveness. And the screenplay by co-producers Paul Aaron and Michael Henry Brown contains a few genuinely clever touches of character detail. Midway through the pic, God becomes a proud father, and delights in taking his baby boy along for the ride as he drives through his domain. It’s hard to balance changing diapers with threatening underlings — but hey, being a single parent is never easy, even if you’re God.
Epps is appropriately intense throughout, even during moments of comic relief. His straight-faced sincerity adds to the fun during a bleakly funny sequence in which Cole/Reid demonstrates spectacularly poor marksmanship while proving his loyalty to God.
Grier scores in her fleeting appearance as a veteran cop, and Tucci is authoritative as the commander who fears the worst when Cole stays undercover too long. Nia Long makes the most of a thinly written part as a dancer-model who becomes involved with Cole during an R&R hiatus.
Moviegoers rarely get a glimpse of the mean streets of Cincinnati, so pic offers undeniable novelty value simply because of its setting. Tech credits are adequate.