Treading water

Movie: In Too Deep

Our Rating: 2.50

Its opening title tells us that "In Too Deep" is based on a true story, and the stuff of that real-life saga certainly seems worthy of a big-screen treatment. How could Hollywood resist a tale of an ambitious rookie cop who goes deep undercover and forms criminal alliances that test his moral mettle? Throw in a drug lord who rules inner-city Cincinnati with a beguiling but effective blend of brutality and benevolence, a sympathetic superior officer who fights to get his man off the street and a Drug Enforcement Administration that pushes to keep the investigation alive, and all the elements are in place for some gripping viewing.

But despite being juiced with graphic violence and an engaging hip-hop soundtrack, this late-summer action flick takes all those potentially exciting elements and lets them go to waste. Blame it on the sloppy pacing of director Michael Rymer, or a flawed script that places the main characters in contrived situations and has them spout hackneyed dialogue. Whoever's at fault, "In Too Deep" is oddly monotonous and less compelling than the storyline might indicate.

Omar Epps (The Mod Squad, The Wood) takes center stage as Jeff Cole, a go-getting cop who can't wait to visit a little revenge on the kind of thugs who once put a blight on his old neighborhood. Cole hits the street masquerading as Iowa transplant J. Reid, and is taken lickety-split to a gleaming game room for his meeting with God, a strapping dope czar with burly arms, tattoos, a gold chain and earrings on both ears.

The self-styled divinity, relocated from New Jersey in an effort to expand his empire, imagines himself to be the savior of the neighborhood. Sure, he orders the removal of a man's tongue and sodomizes another enemy with a pool cue. But his control of 80 percent of the city's crack-cocaine trade allows him to sponsor street fairs and help single mothers pay for food and shelter. Who would argue with that arrangement?

Day by day, Cole moves closer to the inner circle, accompanying fellow gangsters on murderous missions (but pretending to be a bad shot in order to avoid doing any real killing.) He even pays his respects at a christening ceremony for God's firstborn.

Of course there's a final showdown, and Cole/Reid must ultimately choose between his newfound pals and his career. But oddly enough, "In Too Deep" cuts away from the action about midway through the movie, when Cole -- revealing his identity after completing a drug bust -- is shipped off to a rural town for a little rest and relaxation.

There, he poses as a photography student at the local college, eventually falling in love with Myra (Nia Long), a nude model. Soon, however, Cole has convinced the powers-that-be to put him back into play. Perhaps a law-enforcement professional could explain why an undercover cop, once exposed, would return to the same community where he made his high-profile arrest. Wouldn't that constitute a death wish?

The film additionally fails by giving Stanley Tucci (who plays Cole's boss) and Pam Grier (who co-stars as a female detective) too little to do. LL Cool J, who took MVP honors in the otherwise forgettable Deep Blue Sea and Halloween H20, yet again proves a standout. Note to Hollywood: Shower the guy with more screen time. As "In Too Deep" proves, he won't be in over his head.


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