FILM / Rackets, stings, cons and scams: Deep Cover (18)Bill Duke (US); Midnight Sting (15)Michael Ritchie (US); Schtonk] (15)Helmut Dietl (Ger); Sweet Emma, Dear Bobe (18)Istvan Szabo (Hung)

Deep Cover has no big budget, no big hype, no big-name director and no big stars. No big concept either: a policeman is sent undercover to infiltrate and bust a Latin American drugs ring. But this low-profile formula movie is transformed into a real class act by its stylish execution.

Exhibit One: the cast (not famous marquee names, but an array of fine character actors). As the cop, Larry Fishburne - the father in Boyz N the Hood - joins Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes as one of Hollywood's few mature and charismatic black leading men; Jeff Goldblum, playing the oily lawyer / drugs dealer who becomes his accomplice, does his best work for years; and Charles Martin Smith stands out in the shadows as Fishburne's wily little ferret-like superior.

Exhibit Two: the script, co-written by Michael Tolkin, who last year sent out two mordant missives from the West Coast, The Player and The Rapture, an odd piece about the Second Coming. Deep Cover (also set in LA), displays a similarly moralistic, even evangelical edge, and the same confusion and ambiguity. Fishburne earns his assignment when he solves the riddle: 'What's the difference between a black man and a nigger?' (He dispatches it with the contempt it deserves). But he soon sinks into a deeper quagmire of ethnic complexities, where the Jewish Goldblum, the WASP-y police hierarchy and the Latin American statesman / drugs overlord regard each other with contempt and fascination in equal measure.

The ethical puzzles are treacherous too - Fishburne's caught between Smith, who brags that he's God, all-seeing and all-powerful, and the narcotics officer he keeps running into on the streets, a fervent Christian who prays 'Work with me, Jesus' before making a bust. Finally he no longer knows whether he's a cop posing as a drugs dealer or a pusher posing as aE cop. It's all told by Fishburne's gravelly, melancholy voice- THER write errorover, which ends with a challenge - left with yet another moral dilemma, he asks us directly: 'What would you do?'

Exhibit Three: the nervy direction, by Bill Dukes, whose credits run to just one interesting TV movie, The Killing Floor, and the coarse comedy A Rage in Harlem. He takes what should be an action movie and turns it into something nightmarish, meditative and unreal. Peppered with jump-cuts, wipes and fades, the story's less important than the intense show-downs where the antagonists lock eyes and nerves in acerbic, slow-burning verbal scuffles. The disappointment of Night and the City has left some critics lamenting that film noir is dead in the water, but Deep Cover displays many hallmarks of the genre, down to the diffuse paranoia (perhaps the entire operation is a high-level Washington cover- up). It was the most unexpected pleasure to arrive here in many a month.

Midnight Sting is a much lesser movie, but good fun for similar reasons. It too has a terrific, second XI cast. James Woods plays an ex-con who arrives in Diggstown, a quiet backwater whose main diversions are betting and boxing. Here, with the help of his pudgy sidekick (the excellent Oliver Platt) he sets up an elaborate boxing scam in which an ageing pug (Louis Gossett Jnr) will thrash any 10 of Diggsville's finest within 24 hours. The mark: the town's thoroughly nasty Mr Big (the even more wonderful Bruce Dern, whose quizzically pursed lips or elegantly raised eyebrow can convey a world of silky menace). The premise is improbable - Gossett's character is 48, the actor himself 56 - and peters out lamely after one had expected the snaky Dern to supply at least one parting twist. But this witty piece offers many incidental compensations.

Woods' wardrobe of paisley shirts and non-matching paisley ties should be in itself an indictable offence but the technical crime that put him in the slammer was forged Old Masters (his nemesis: they were painted in acrylics). Schtonk] deals with the mother of all scams: the fake Hitler diaries, which were aged, it seems, by steam-ironing tea on to the manuscript. This burlesque comedy makes it clear why the locals were hoodwinked (though you're still left puzzled as to why so many international 'experts' were fooled for so long) - the Germans are fat-cat Fascists still infatuated with all things Fuhrer, even Adrian Mole-style witterings about farting. Unlike Jonathan Pryce's gaunt obsessive in the British TV version of this story Gotz George plays the reporter as a sleazy used-car salesman. The affair is a suave con on all sides, not a grand delusion.

The first-time writer-director Helmut Dietl has an uncertain touch but the film is given a sophisticated sheen by its glittering CinemaScope photography - Xaver Schwarzenberger, one of Germany's best DOP's, shot Fassbinder's last films and even made the dozy 'Otto' movies (phenomenally successful but strictly unexportable German comedies) look like a million dollars.

A too-brief commendation, finally, for Sweet Emma, Dear Bobe, a refreshing return to miniaturism and to his native land by Istvan Szabo after his Euro-turkey Meeting Venus. It's a quietly anguished story of two young teachers scraping by in post-Communist Hungary, shot in the best tradition of East European cinema with a great emotional directness and an eye for everyday details that speak volumes about the larger picture.

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