Who's in it? Jason Patric and Ray Liotta
Writer-director Joe Carnahan's Narc takes the seemingly exhausted cop movie genre and uses it as a springboard for some innovative storytelling. The setting, Detroit's mean streets, may be familiar, but Carnahan has a welcome habit of occasionally focusing on things most filmmakers choose to ignore. He also has an offbeat cinematic vocabulary that makes even the most mundane of situations seem new and invigorating. Narc isn't a cheery or upbeat film, but Carnahan deserves credit for keeping gloom and hopelessness from getting dull.
Carnahan wastes no time in the way that he pulls viewers into his dark work. In what looks like combat photography (this is one of the few times in movies where the shaky-cam actually enhances the action), we follow narcotics detective Nick Tellis (Jason Patric, Your Friends and Neighbors) as he tries to bust an armed and violent perp. In its own smaller and more intimate way, this sequence is as harrowing as the D-Day portions of Saving Private Ryan. Nick dashes through buildings, dodges bystanders and sees others shot.
The fallout from Nick's pursuit puts his career in limbo. He's being investigated and may never work as a cop again. Because his cover was never blown, Nick's superiors ask him to help investigate the unsolved murder of a fellow narc named Calvess (Alan Von Sprang). They also want Nick to keep an eye on the detective who's currently handing the case, Lt. Henry Oak (Ray Liotta). Both Nick and his bosses are suspicious of Lt. Oak. The Lieutenant has an impressive 93 percent conviction rate, but he readily beats suspects who aren't cooperative, and he was close to Calvess. Needless to say, its takes a while for Nick and Lt. Oak to get a long.
Together the pair wander through the Motor City's least inviting districts chasing a frustrating number of dead ends. Narc's presentation of cops and the crooks they arrest is similar to what Sidney Lumet with Prince of the City or Serpico. What makes the new film more than an imitation is that it features flashy techniques that actually accentuate the story. As Nick roams Detroit looking for leads, Carnahan uses a 1960's split screen effect to let us know the investigation is time consuming and not terribly fruitful.
Some of the content in Narc is as intriguing as the technical details. Normally, cop movies feature idealized families or homes that are as volatile as crime scenes. In Narc, Nick's domestic situation is strangely tranquil. The most haunting image in the movie comes not from the gunplay or the depravity of the streets but in Nick's own bathroom.
After the film's grisly opening, we see Nick calmly taking a shower as the camera pans down to reveal his infant child. The contrast to the grisly violence that preceded it is appropriately jarring. Nick's marriage eventually collapses, but is breaks down in a naturalistic manner that's alien to most police flicks.
Lt. Oak has a similar complexity that makes him more intriguing. Instead of being simply a thug, Liotta and Carnahan give him an appealing paternal streak. It's the first role in ages that has allowed Liotta to show that the marvelous work he did in GoodFellas wasn't a fluke.
Patric didn't put on the weight or alter his appearance as much as Liotta did, and his character isn't as flashy. Nonetheless, he plays unspoken torment with remarkable effortlessness.
The conclusion is protracted and saps some of the film's earlier energy, but Narc is still worth a look because Carnahan and company create a world that's as vibrant as it is gloomy.
© 2002 Dan Lybarger
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