review by KJ Doughton, 20 December 2002
Joe Carnahan’s Narc smacks
viewers alongside the head like a desperate junkie hunting down his
fix money. Its initial chase scene is all frantic, hand held camerawork,
a jittery home movie of undercover officer Nick Tellis (Jason Patric)
as he descends into Hell. A
recovering substance abuser himself, Tellis is tailing a homicidal
dope dealer through a playground.
After his panting query jams a needle into the neck of an
unsuspecting bystander, the mad-dog offender takes a pregnant woman
hostage. The harrowing
showdown ends with Tellis accidentally shooting the captive and
causing the loss of her baby.
Yeah, Narc is that kind of
movie. It joins Rush
(which also starred Patric), The Onion Field, Serpico,
Seven, The French Connection, Traffic, and Prince
of the City as a grimy, hyper-real exploration of the emotional
and psychological prices paid by cops. Carnahan’s film is more
sober than Quentin Tarantino’s jive-talking, caffeinated approach
to the streets, and less sexy than the pumped-up, comic book style
of John Woo. If
Tarantino is a celluloid double espresso and Woo is a dry martini,
Carnahan serves up black coffee – hold the cream and sugar.
Eighteen months have passed since
Tellis’ botched drug bust. He has lost his badge in the
shootout’s tragic wake, and spends his days watching the paint
peel at home with a wife and child.
Unpaid bills merely increase the frustrated burnout’s
Looking haggard and unkempt, an overgrown moustache hiding
the handsome contours of his face, Tellis resembles a jaded war
veteran who hates what he’s observed on duty, but can’t
acclimate to anything else. Despite his apprehensiveness – and his
wife’s insistence that he abandon policework – Patric’s
brooding crime fighter is itching to return to the streets.
After being called upon by his review board and given a
chance to rejoin the Detroit Police Force, Tellis reluctantly
accepts the offer.
Another narcotics officer has been
shot dead. Tellis is
asked to track down his seedy underworld connections and discover
who committed the murder. The
assignment hits frighteningly close to home – the slain officer,
Michael Calvess (Alan Van Sprang), appeared to be another lost soul
who’d dug himself in too deeply into the drug scene before his
lifeless corpse was pulled from a tunnel by partner Henry Oak (Ray
Tellis is ordered to team up with
Oak, a short-fused, embittered bruiser who has seen his own share of
loss. Not beyond a bit of good ol’ police brutality to extract
information from criminal vermin, Oak is a towering bear of rage,
too tired for bedside manners and too angry to give a sh*t.
What fuels Oak’s simmering fire pit, Tellis asks himself,
and exactly what are the volatile man’s motives for resolving this
Between scenes of the expected
shakedowns and interrogations, Carnahan stages a delicate, telling
scene where the two weathered officers converse from the front seats
of a parked patrol car. Oak
lets his guard down and explains to Tellis that his wife recently
died of cancer. The
sting of sorrow left its emotional scars, and unleashed a
“I became a much better cop the day she died,” confesses
Oak, acknowledging that the absence of this personal beacon only
adds to his reckless abandon on the job.
Perhaps beneath his gruff exterior, Oak has a death wish, and
is merely expediting the arrival of his own demise by taking on the
dangerous crooks inhabiting Detroit’s drug trade.
Narc tosses its viewers
several crumbs of knowledge concerning the Calvess shooting. Such
flashbacks surface like colorless, grungy daydreams, returning us
repeatedly to the dark tunnel where the crime took place.
Turning to Rashomon for inspiration, Carnahan forces
us to see the ambiguous scenario unfold from different perspectives,
hiding the ultimate truth until his movie’s final frames. This
approach brings to mind the centerpiece sequence from Christopher
Nolan’s Insomnia, in which Al Pacino wanders through the
Alaskan fog, vainly searching for an elusive killer. Culminating in
a nasty, no-holds-barred interrogation of two dealers (Busta Rhymes
and Richard Chevolleau) who interacted with Calvess before the
shooting, Narc drops us into the abandoned, industrial
innards of an urban chop shop. Oak has shackled the duo of gangsters, and is attempting to
extract a confession for his dead partner’s murder through a
relentless physical and psychological drilling.
Meanwhile, Tellis must dissect the case using his own cunning
and instinct, even if it means confronting the intimidating Oak.
In their depictions of men warping
and twisting under enormous pressure, Patric and Liotta have never
been better. As the
more subtle and understated Tellis, Patric is all internalized
torment as he tears each layer off of the Calvess mystery using a
detective’s silent savvy. Countering
his co-star’s evocation of quiet desperation, Liotta lets it rip
as the physical, impulsive Oak.
It’s to Liotta’s credit that his complex creation can
keep the audience guessing as to Oak’s ultimate role in the
puzzle. Appearing shifty and suspicious one minute, as when he
reprimands Tellis for questioning Calvess’ widow about the case,
Oak can be admirably straightforward and heroic the next.
Meanwhile, director Carnahan
deserves accolades for resurrecting crime films that put substance
over style. By intentionally bleaching out Narc’s color
scheme and creating a grainy canvas reminiscent of Steven
Soderbergh’s Traffic, the filmmaker keeps his focus on
character development. And
unlike other recent thrillers that present violence as a throwaway
punch line, Narc emphasizes the irreparable damage done to
men who live life in the trenches of crime.
When Oak and Tellis question a mangy, sore-covered junkie
scratching his nether regions and begging for a fix, the image is
hard to endure. But somewhere out there, the narcs of our cities
cope with such cringe-worthy images on a regular basis, and seldom
emerge unscathed. Narc
reminds us of the price that they pay.
PG - Parental
Some material may
not be appropriate