By Owen Gleiberman
Updated September 03, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Undercover cops have to be sterling put-on artists, and Omar Epps, cast as Jeff Cole, a rookie officer who infiltrates a Cincinnati cocaine ring, does something fresh with the familiar — but always juicy — situation of an actor playing a cop who’s essentially an actor. To win the trust of a brutal gang lord, who calls himself God (he’s played by LL Cool J, looking like he enjoys the billing), Cole has to prove himself a homicidal street demon. In the process, In Too Deep invites us to view the threats, the gestures, and the code words of a hip-hop-schooled hustler as the intricate postures they are.

Epps is trying for a more combustible version of what Johnny Depp brought off in Donnie Brasco, and there isn’t a trace of fat in his performance. Unfortunately, the movie, despite a few volatile scenes (notably a shocking variation on the New York precinct-house torture of Abner Louima), is a weakly scripted shambles that fails to develop the drama of Cole’s predicament. Instead, it wanders off into dull subplots (a generic romance, the hero’s stint in photography class), so that when we’re told that Cole is in danger of actually becoming his underworld persona, we don’t buy it for a moment.