Dir: Joe Carnahan, 2002. Starring: Ray Liotta, Jason Patric, Chi McBride, Busta Rhymes. Action.

As a follow-up to director Joe Carnahan’s crazy action indie Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane, he chose to write and direct one of the grittiest, low down cop flicks in recent years, if not ever, Narc. It’s the story of two cops (Ray Liotta and Jason Patric) investigating the death of one of their colleagues. The investigation leads them deep into the heart of Detroit’s brutal drug trade (though most of the film was actually shot in Toronto). Each has their own heavy cop baggage and demons that they must tote with them through the brutal streets.

Over the years Carnahan has been linked to a number of high profile projects that have either vanished or come to fruition with other directors at the helm (ranging from Mission Impossible III to adaptations of Killing Pablo and James Ellroy’s White Jazz with George Clooney). In recent years he made the overly hyper action comedy Smokin’ Aces and the decent but forgettable restaging of TV’s The A-Team. Narc has been the peak of Carnahan’s career; it’s the film that is still getting him attached to so many high profile projects. It showed so much potential; time will tell if he is ever able to match it in quality. He was able to bring an arresting visual style, emphasizing the cool blue streets of Detroit in winter (similar to the hues Steven Soderbergh shot Detroit with in Out of Sight). The city is made to feel frigid, not just in the air, but also in the hearts of the players on both sides of the law.

Narc opens with a wham-bam hand held chase as undercover cop Nick Tellis (Patric) pursues a drug dealer. Nick manages to shoot the guy but a number of bystanders are put in harm's way, including a pregnant mother whom Nick shoots. This is going to be Nick’s burden to carry. With a new baby his wife is relieved to see him leave the force, until two years later when he is persuaded to come back to investigate the murder of another undercover cop, Michael Calvess. He partners up with Calvess’ ex-partner, a deeply unstable and intensely violent cop, Henry Oak (Liotta). The two end up becoming as close as two haunted cops can get, while they carefully trace Calvess’ steps leading to his death. For Nick, as the facts fall into place, it all leads him to Oak being involved with a number of shaky dealings and to his being there when Calvess was killed. This leads to a violent conclusion and Nick having to make some hard decisions.

Both Liotta and Patric are excellent. Patrick went from bland pretty-boy (The Lost Boys) to being considered a real actor with a similar role as an undercover cop in the underrated druggy cop flick Rush. He squandered the career jump with mostly bad films, including the abysmal high-profile sequel Speed 2: Cruise Control. Unfortunately, since Narc, Patric has gone back to mostly lame flicks. The guys has the chops, hopefully he can find another role that fits his intense skills. Liotta has also had a mostly "miss" career. Of course, he entered the near legend status with his brilliant performance in Martin Scorsese’s mobster masterpiece, Goodfellas, and since it’s been mostly blah. Narc may be Liotta’s best performance of his career. Going back to his breakthrough role in Something Wild, menace and danger have always been Liotta’s bread and butter, but he carries it in his added bulk with a heavier heart. Oak knows he’s out of control and he seems to regret it. The fascinating twist to the Narc is not the obvious, Oak’s real burden may just be his heart.

Narc joins the ranks of the best dirty cop films like Prince of the City, LA Confidential, Q & A, Internal Affairs, and To Live and Die In LA, where often the bad cops have good intentions, but the pull of the street brings them down, if not just greed. In the best of these films, the good guys are not just good and the bad guys are not just bad, the characters are more complicated than that; they are fully formed three-dimensional creatures. Narc feels like it’s leading to some kind of Serpico vs The Shield finale, but it twists expectations in a real heartbreaking way and, thankfully, it manages to take a handful of cop movie clichés and throw the book at them.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
May 5, 2011 1:05pm
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