Under Cover

Director: John Stockwell  
David Neidorf, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Barry Corbin

Although each of us is a completely unique kind of person, we all share some of the same needs. We all need food and water, of course, as well as shelter and a means to maintain a supply of food, water, and shelter. But there are other and less obvious desires that we all share. One of those desires is to constantly have good experiences in our lives. An obvious reason for this is that good experiences make us feel good. But another reason for this is that we have all had a number of bad experiences in our lives, experiences that I think no sane person would want to experience ever again. These bad experiences drive us to not only find something pleasant to take our minds off those bad experiences, but to ensure that the new activities won't make us relive in any part those bad experiences. I would like to talk about one kind of unpleasant experience many of us have had, and that happens to be the time we spent in high school. Some people might claim immediately that they did have a good time at high school, but if you were to press them, I am sure they would admit that not all their time there was pleasant. When I remember my high school days, a flood of bad experiences flows through my mind. There was lousy cafeteria food, teachers who could not teach well, other teachers who were very strict, additional teachers who gave out a lot of homework, gym classes that expected everyone to be a great athlete, bullies and other student creeps, and many other things. When I look back at things like that in my high school, I honestly wonder how I managed to get through and graduate.

As you can imagine, I have ample reason to not think back on my high school years fondly, enough so that I didn't attend my high school reunion a few years back. I'm pretty sure that most people, even if they thought they enjoyed high school, wouldn't want to experience once again that particular pressure they had to go through. But I want to talk about a tiny percentage of people who do go back to high school years after they were students there. No, I am not talking about people who become teachers and return to high school to do that occupation, nor am I talking about people who never graduated but return to school to get their G.E.D. I am talking about policemen and policewomen who return to high school posing as newly arrived students, but are really there to sniff out illegal activity (usually drug-related cases.) When I hear about such a thing from various media outlets, I have to admit that it really gets me to think about these particular police people who pose as students. How do they disguise the fact that they are no longer teenagers, but instead people well into their twenties? (Not just with their looks, but with their grasp on what the students around them consider to be important in pop culture.) What do they do if a student of the opposite sex asks them out on a date? How do they manage to do a thorough and successful investigation while at the same time they have to keep up appearances and do the homework their teachers assign? Do they bring their firearms with them if they go to one of those dangerous inner city schools?

As you can see from those thoughts that I wrote in the above paragraph, it sure doesn't look easy to be an undercover police officer in a high school. But when you think about it, Under Coverall these potential problems seem to be gold for a screenwriter writing about police officers going under cover - there's a lot of drama that can be minded. But strangely, I have observed over the years while there have been plenty of television shows that have dealt with cops going under cover in high school, there haven't been that many movies that have done so. Off the top of my head, I can only think of three such movies - 21 Jump Street, Plain Clothes, and the movie I am reviewing here, Under Cover. Why there have been so few movies on the subject I am not sure, though it may be because it's hard to find actors who can be convincing both as cops and students. Whatever the problem or problems might be, it didn't stop the legendary Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus from producing this attempt. The main character in the movie is Shef Hauser (David Neidorf, Platoon), a police officer working in the city of Baltimore. When he receives word that his police officer partner has been murdered while posing as a high school student down in South Carolina in an attempt to investigate and break a local drug ring, Hauser decides to go down south and pose as a high school student himself in order to both break the drug ring and solve his partner's murder. Under the guidance of one Sergeant Irwin (Barry Corbin, Northern Exposure) and working side by side with fellow undercover cop Tanille (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Fast Times At Ridgemont High), Shef soon enters the local high school, posing as a new student. But Shef soon discovers that his investigation is not going to be easy, with problems ranging from difficult homework assignments to the fact that his receding hairline and his 24/7 heavy facial stubble instantly makes many of the students wonder if this new student is in fact a grown up narc.

Under Cover was made around the start of the decline of Cannon Films. Just previous to the production of this movie, several big budget efforts by Cannon had tanked badly or significantly underperformed at the box office. This lead to Golan and Globus slashing budgets for almost all of the movies they produced around the time this movie was made. The Go-Go boys certainly knew how to squeeze every last penny out of a limited budget, but despite this, many of their movies of this period have a number of cheap and cheesy touches, such as Death Wish 4: The Crackdown. I was therefore prepared for a tacky look for Under Cover, but I am happy to report that in this later Cannon movie, the production values earn an extremely high grade. My research couldn't uncover what the budget was for this movie, but obviously it was enough in this case. The end credits reveal that the movie was actually shot on location in South Carolina (as well as other southern U.S. locations) so we don't have a phony backdrop to the story. Another plus is that the production obviously had enough money to afford to put in an appropriate amount of background detail, whether it was enough background extras to set dressings. And when it comes to the technical level of the movie, the movie boasts a professional appearance throughout. It is very well shot, with the photography looking clean and clear, with appropriate lighting in both interior sequences and moments taking place outdoors (in both day and night sequences.) While it's probably safe to say that this Cannon movie had a budget somewhat less than that of a typical movie of the time that was made by one of the other major studios in Hollywood, all the same Under Cover looks slick and polished enough to be able to stand up proudly next to all those other efforts from the other major studios.

Clearly, a lot of thanks for the professional feel of Under Cover has to be credited to Golan and Globus, who certainly knew how to do much with so little. But a good deal of the credit for the success of the movie has to go to its director, John Stockwell, who before this movie was best known for playing "Cougar" in Top Gun. It was surprising to find out that this movie was his directorial debut, because the movie sure feels like it was helmed by a seasoned professional. What really struck me most about his direction was his ability to make the audience feel the atmosphere and local color of this small South Carolina town. You can almost sense the humidity, heat, and often the poverty the tired-looking characters are struggling in. Various characters are given various quirks that seem to fit well in this environment, like the whorehouse madam who decorates the interior of her establishment with numerous Christmas decorations despite the fact that St. Patrick's Day has just passed. There are also some moments that feel uncomfortably real, like when in the school locker room the black students are at one side and the white students are at the other end. What really sells awkward or tense moments like these - as well as the moments in the movie that are much lighter in nature - are the actors. Stockwell manages to get his largely unknown cast to deliver their lines in the right tone that makes even the less shown characters to be memorable. Special praise for those among the supporting cast goes to actress Kathleen Willhoite as the lovably kooky police station clerk who gives the hero a hand on several occasions, as well as actors David Harris and David Denney, who each play a particular student at the local high school who comes under the hero's suspicion radar.

As for the headline actors, David Neidorf and Jennifer Jason Leigh, both of them give effective performances that portray their characters having a long-time weariness from the endless war of fighting crime, but at the same still having enough determination to do their jobs. It is true that both actors look a bit too old to successfully pretend to be teenagers, but the screenplay manages to use this for a couple of comic relief bits, as well as one genuinely tense sequence when suspecting teenagers confront Neidorf's character. Under Cover's screenplay was co-written by director Stockwell (and reportedly also by an uncredited Menahem Golan), and it's a pretty well-written piece of work for the most part. With this being a Cannon movie, you might expect a lot of action, but there is actually very little. The story has a very down to earth and realistic feeling. The investigation is shown to be an actual investigation, slow moving but methodical, which is how I think most police investigations are in real life. I feel I should add that despite this, the movie never gets slow enough to be boring - there's always some interest in whatever scene is playing. Also, the villains in the movie are not portrayed as cold-blooded geniuses, but as people you can almost understand why they decided to engage in criminal activity. The screenplay does stumble a bit with some of its characters, both good and bad. There are some characters that simply disappear after a while and are not brought up again, as well as some characters that are off the screen for long periods of time. If there's another flaw to be found with the movie, it would have to be the musical score by Michael Cotton and Todd Rundgren, which both dates the movie and must have sounded screechy and strident even for audiences back in 1987. But Under Cover works for the most part, and will be of interest to both Cannonholics as well as those who find interest in the idea of police officers going back to school undercover.

(Posted June 23, 2016)

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See also: Keaton's Cop, 10 To Midnight, 3:15