Commentary: Can violence teach non-violence?
When does a film get 'In Too Deep'?
August 17, 1999
By Andy Culpepper
LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- There's an old expression: If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. For the purposes of this article, let's amend that to read, "If you can't stand the violence, get out of the theater."
That's exactly what I did during a recent publicity screening of the new Dimension Films/Miramax release, "In Too Deep."
I walked out little more than an hour in. I simply couldn't take any more. Not because of the acting. Not because of the writing.
It was just way too violent for me to endure one more scene, particularly after witnessing one graphic display I won't describe here other than to say it involved a pool table, a cue stick and a man hog-tied, stark naked and face down on the table.
Let me also state here that this story is not a review of this film, scheduled to open August 25. I'm not critiquing the merits of "In Too Deep" or its artistic contribution or the talents of the acting ensemble.
But after struggling with what I'd report about this film, I'd be remiss if I didn't write about the most salient thing about this picture for this reporter -- and that is, first and foremost, the intense nature of the violence I witnessed.
Getting ready to rumble
The first page of the production notes asks the question, "How far can an undercover cop go into the ruthless underworld of an urban drug cartel filled with violence, power, and money, before he no longer can find his way out?"
Omar Epps plays undercover Cincinnati detective Jeffrey Cole. He's trying to take down the local crime boss Dwayne Gittens (rap star LL Cool J), who calls himself "God." Nia Long plays Myra, who falls in love with Detective Cole -- only to be repulsed by the self-destructive nature of his obsession with ending the reign of "God."
The press notes stress the psychological nature of Cole's dilemma. They also say this story is based on true-to-life characters. The screenplay was written and produced by Michael Henry Brown and Paul Aaron. Michael Rymer directs ("Allie & Me," 1997; "Angel Baby," 1995).
Sitting down to talk
The topic of violence comes up first with actress Long, who asks me what I thought of the movie as we sit down to talk about it. When I tell her, she doesn't flinch in offering her opinion on violence in general.
"Even though violence is always criticized in the media," she says, "it's often criticized in a way in which it's glorified."
The woman who plays the moral center and protagonist's touchstone of this picture says the situations explored in the movie are matter-of-fact. "It's part of life. I don't think this film glorifies it. I think this film shows what can happen to you if you believe you're larger than life."
Long's colleague Epps compares "In Too Deep" to other films known for their violence, notably "Scarface" (1983), which starred Al Pacino in a similar milieu.
"Classic film," Epps says, "but when you see it, you'll see why you need to see the violence. It justifies everything you've heard about it -- everything that makes it an iconic film. You know what I mean? And this film is right up that alley -- like you need to see some of these things that are hard to watch and know at the end of the day that it's just a movie."
LL Cool J doesn't disagree that "In Too Deep" may be hard to watch. "The film is disturbing," he says. "It's very abrasive. It's very ugly. And that's the beauty of it.
"There's two tiers to it," he says. "There's the popcorn-hotdog-soda, just-go-see-a-movie part of it for what it is. And then there's the more profound level, the moral value, the spiritual value, the redeeming qualities which exist in the film and the art. And it's there. Because it's so ugly it isn't glorified."
The 'beware nice guys' defense
I raise the point with LL Cool J that his character is, on the surface, the most likable guy in the film. And this very likable criminal is played by one of the most likable guys in entertainment. It seems a situation fraught with potential danger, recalling the William Butler Yeats poem that ends with the line, "How do you tell the dancer from the dance?" -- how does one separate the horrific deeds of this character from all his pre-packaged likability?
The rapper-turned-actor borrows from Eastern thought to make his point. "The Chinese have a saying," LL Cool J says, "'Beware the man with the Buddha's mouth and the snake's heart.' This is the perfect example of that."
He then turns my question around and uses it to defend the extremes in his film: "The comment that you make is the comment that I hope parents make to their kids.
"I hope one parent in the country, just one, goes with their 16-year-old or their 17-year-old -- even though their 17-year-old is gonna be 'I want to go alone' -- goes with them, and sits down with them and makes statements like that.
"You could teach with this film," LL Cool J says. "Because you know what? That neighborhood drug dealer? He's not going to come up to your kid cursing him out being mean to him. He's not going to come up to your kid with the gun out (saying) 'Take my drugs.' He's going to come up like, 'Hey how you doing?' He's going to kill you with kindness."
And once again, the conversation turns to an example found in a Pacino film. "Al Pacino said it in '(The) Devil's Advocate,'" in which Pacino starred with Keanu Reeves in 1997.
LL Cool J pulls out a dead-on Pacino imitation. "He said, 'That's our secret: Kill them with kindness.'"
Hype or hope?
The filmmakers and studio behind "In Too Deep" say the film is a study in moral ambiguity, a crisis to which the title alludes. I ask Long to define the phrase, "In Too Deep."
"Whatever you're involved in, make sure you don't lose yourself," she says. "You always need to be able to have the ability to have some sense of center and control to be able to step outside and see things clearly."
Epps, who plays the character for whom obsession becomes its own drug, concurs. "You have a goal," he says. "You have drive. You have passion. But how much of yourself are you willing to sacrifice, and how much is needed? If you achieve the goal but you sacrifice yourself, how much have you really achieved at the end of the day?"
The logic is clear.
How much of this discussion on moral ambiguity, obsession, and wolf-in-sheep's clothing drug dealing will be drowned out by the sounds of popcorn being chewed and colas being chugged?
And how many under-age teenagers will find themselves sitting in a darkened theater watching this R-rated film without benefit of a parent sitting nearby -- when the credits roll on "In Too Deep?"
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