The one thing a thriller should never do is waste your time. The whole point of spending 90 minutes in the dark is to avoid the far more worthwhile tasks you're supposed to pursue. So that shadow play on the screen better get you sufficiently lost. Or else.
For the most part, "In Too Deep" fulfills this requirement with enough fire and grit to make you forget the by-the-numbers nature of its plot about an undercover cop (Omar Epps) who gets too caught up in pretending to be a down-and-dirty street criminal.
Epps' Jeff Cole is a Cincinnati policeman so fresh out of the academy that he barely has time to get the shrink-wrap off his badge. Though greener than fresh Astroturf, Cole convinces a senior investigator (Stanley Tucci) to toss him onto the streets as a faux small-time dealer.
Cole's trial run as a professional infiltrator is a near-botch. He is nonetheless given a bigger, more carnivorous fish to fry: drug kingpin Dwayne Gittens (LL Cool J), whose dominion over people's lives is so broad and deep that no one questions his assuming the nickname "God."
Taking the cue from his character's omnipotent moniker, LL Cool J plays Gittens like a Cheshire cat combination of ward leader, avuncular supervisor and strict daddy. Only in a few explosive scenes (one of them an especially gruesome torture sequence in God's rec room) does Cool J's character resemble the snarling drug lords of many "blaxploitation" thrillers.
As one could have guessed, Cole, posing as J. Reid, a snarky dealer from Akron, Ohio, finds himself doing what movie audiences often do in gangster movies: admiring, in spite of himself, the bad guy's magnetism and power.
Indeed, Gittens' cuddly-puppy manner informs the template of moral ambiguity contrived by producer-writers Michael Henry Brown ("Dead Presidents") and Paul Aaron as an ethical obstacle course for Cole, whose pose is so effective that he starts to scare himself, his dancer-girlfriend (Nia Long, steely and subtly effective in what could have been a standard-issue role) and his captain, who's ready to pull the plug at any moment.
If you think you've seen all this before, you have. And there isn't much in the bread-and-butter direction of Michael Rymer to make you think otherwise. Still, Aaron and Brown's script resounds throughout with astringent dialogue and stark authenticity. And Epps makes an impressive, more-than-stolid showing in his schizoid leading role. One thing, though: No movie should get off easy for not giving Pam Grier more to do than she does here as a tough veteran cop. Are we back to begging once again for more starring roles for this legendary lady?
* MPAA rating: R, for brutal violence, strong sexuality, language and drug content. Times guidelines: violence, profanity, scenes of drug use and torture.
'In Too Deep'
Omar Epps: Jeff Cole/J. Reid
LL Cool J: Dwayne Gittens
Nia Long: Myra
Stanley Tucci: Preston D'Ambrosio
Pam Grier: Det. Angela Wilson
Hill Harper: Breezy T.
Dimension Films presents a Suntaur Entertainment production. Director Michael Rymer. Producers Paul Aaron, Michael Henry Brown. Screenplay Brown, Aaron. Cinematographer Ellery Ryan. Editor Dany Cooper. Costumes Shawn Barton. Music Christopher Young. Production design Dan Leigh. Art director Kenneth Watkins. Set decorator Sean Kirby. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.