Officer Russell Stevens (Fishburne) is sent to infiltrate a Los Angeles drugs ring and, ultimately, discredit its top man, a prominent South American politician.
The cardinal rule for such a venture is not to break your cover - he doesn't - and after a couple of crises of conscience (is murder for market-expansion within his brief and should he actually sell crack to school kids?) he finds he's rather good at it, and progresses through "middle management" to the development of a laboratory-made wonder drug.
So far so Miami Vice - not surprising when you consider director Bill Duke's work on the series - until the plod learns that the cartel's Mr. Big now enjoys US government approval and is therefore untouchable. Feeling used and abused, Stevens quits the force and opts for his newly established life of crime.
The central performances here are superb - Fishburne proves himself leading-man material, his usually-stoned partner-in-crime Goldblum's descent into psychosis manages to be amusing and frightening, and Smith as Stevens' manipulative superior makes himself entirely easy to dislike. Meanwhile, screenwriter Michael Tolkin looks at the relationship between cops and criminals with the stark honesty that characterised his earlier success, The Player.
This murky world, in which nobody operates within the law and one hardbitten individual plays both sides in order to do the right thing, is a convincing recreation of the classic film noir attitude, with Fishburne supplying a bleak, Chandleresque voice-over and most of the characters coming complete with brutally dry wisecracks. Atmosphere is everything here, the notion of violence total, and even in the street scenes there's a remarkable feeling of edgy claustrophobia.