(director/writer: Joe Carnahan; cinematographer: Alex Nepomniaschy; editor: John Gilroy; music: Cliff Martinez; cast: Ray Liotta (Detective Lt. Henry R. Oak), Jason Patric (Detective Sgt. Nick Tellis), Lloyd Adams (Walter Dandridge), Dan Leis (Elvin Dowd), Chi McBride (Captain Cheevers), Meagan Issa (Little Girl), Buster Rhymes (Beery), Krista Bridges (Audrey Tellis), Richard Chevolleau (Steeds), Alan Van Sprang (Michael Calvess), Thomas Patrice (Officer Marcotte), John Ortiz (Octavio Ruiz), Anne Openshaw (Kathryn Calvess), Karen Robinson (Liz Detmer); Runtime: 102; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Ray Liotta/Michelle Grace/Julius R. Nasso/Diane Nabatoff; Paramount Pictures; 2002)
“A realistically terrifying movie that puts another notch in the belt of the long list of renegade-cop tales.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
It’s the usual crime story about a disillusioned out-of-control undercover urban narc cop looking for the truth but who has issues to deal with that are both personal and job related. Joe Carnahan directs and writes about this downbeat theme but gives it a frenetic pace that keeps the action rolling along in a chillingly appealing way until its twisty conclusion. Also, the sparse dialogue maintains a crispness that matches the grim atmosphere presented, as the story builds on its own energy until it comes to a screeching halt with a car crash-like conclusion.
“Narc” is budgeted for 3 1/2 million dollars which is peanuts for a Hollywood film, but is a substantial budget increase from Carnahan’s promising debut in the 1998 indie pulp crime thriller feature Blood Guts Bullets & Octane. That stylishly executed experimental film in which he also starred in was shot for around $7,300. Here, Carnahan does much with so little that it puts most typical Hollywood thrillers to shame with what he accomplishes. His best decision was in getting co-stars Jason Patric and Ray Liotta to be in a pic–something they obviously relished doing, as they are in juicy Oscar looking roles that are most suitable to their talents. Patric is the guilt-ridden, laconic, introverted, brooding type on a mission to justify his tainted past actions by searching for the truth and, in a counterpoint role as his cop partner, Liotta is a vocal, beefy, bullying self-righteous brute, loose cannon type who feels he can’t rely on the wheels of justice to get the bad guys so he must bend the rules in the favor of the so-called good guys. Their characterizations work well because their different moods bounce off each other and give the film a good focal point to be centered on.
That it’s an all too familiar clichéd cop movie within the framework of neo-noir films can be overlooked because it raises many thought-provoking questions about the mean streets and the nature of law enforcement and about the stability of the ones whom the public seems to be relying on to keep the streets safe and doesn’t attempt to make its case in the standard Hollywood way. It puts a little brainwork (not much but at least some effort is made to keep it brainy, something most similar crime genre films don’t do at all) into the gruesome but not gratuitous action sequences. There are not new questions raised, but nevertheless it seems fresh because it isn’t phony. It touches a raw nerve that relates to the everyday crime news that inundates the media and its often misleading headlines that blunt the public’s perception about what’s really going down. The familiar police chase (ala French Connection) and the all too familiar ‘bad cop-good cop’ Q & A suspect scenes are nevertheless compelling because they are gritty, even though all who follow such films have seen one too many of them.
Supposedly, Tom Cruise was wowed by Carnahan’s film at Sundance and came on board as executive producer with all his star power connections to get the film heading to a wide national release. The Sundance crowd didn’t go wild over the film, but thankfully Cruise saw its possibilities and the rich flavor it takes from those gritty 1970s genre crime thrillers and the popular current crime shows on TV.
The film immediately grabs your attention with a bloodletting police chase on foot that goes wrong as it takes us through backyards, over fences, and finally to a playground in Detroit (it was actually filmed in Toronto). Undercover narc Detective Sergeant Nick Tellis (Patric) while running after a crazed drug addict who takes time off the chase to plunge a needle into an innocent bystander’s neck, finds himself stopping to help the vic and then continuing his chase while running at top speed. In his zeal to apprehend the suspect, he eventually corners him holding a toddler and opens fire despite the risk. It turns out he got the wrong person as he hits a pregnant woman standing nearby and she loses the expectant baby. In that split-second decision his career and his life becomes in need of rehabilitation. The frenetic action is followed by a shakily handheld camera, as that guerrilla style of shooting adds to the tension of that scene. As a result of Tellis’ poor decision making and because of political implications, fairly or not, the dedicated Tellis is removed from duty.
In order to find the killer of a decorated undercover cop named Michael Calvess, homicide captain Cheevers (Chi McBride), 18 months after Tellis was relieved of duty, offers him an opportunity to renew his career. Tellis is given a second chance by the authorities to rejoin the force as he’s put on a murder investigation and becomes partners with the forceful veteran cop Detective Lt. Henry Oak (Liotta). He takes the place of Oak’s close friend and partner Calvess. The two are outstanding as instinctive cops dedicated to their work, but both are unstable in different ways. They form an uneasy alliance, neither trusting the other, as they act with reckless tough guy abandon to tear apart the graffiti-ridden inner-city of Detroit in their search for the cop killer (it’s a city which looks for the most part nondescript, nothing that a few more shekels in the budget couldn’t have improved). It all leads to a surprise ending and a penetrating look at the lowlifes the detectives have to deal with on a regular basis and how their jobs play nightmarish games with their fragile psyches and their unrelenting need to be macho.
The success in the film, aside from Carnahan’s more than adequate script and his flashy directing skills – derivative though they may be – is mainly derived from the performances of Patric and Liotta and their ability to flesh out their characters and make us care about them. Patric is troubled by his nagging wife’s determination to stop him from joining the force again, but he returns because he believes in what he can’t articulate — that he can do some good out there even if he doesn’t know exactly how or why he wants to return. In his long silences and all the times he clenches his teeth instead of responding to a conversational point, Patric nevertheless allows us to read his inner mood and the sensitivity he has for such a dangerous job. Liotta shows us that he’s just not a vigilante as many layers open up revealing his sense of loyalty, the love he’s capable of, the tender feelings he has for his departed wife, his real horror over witnessing child abuse and drug addiction, the nose he has for detective work, and the decency he’s capable of if he could only learn how to control his anger and the power trip he’s on. These are flawed cops and human beings whose very existence is a downer; but, they are portrayed as real flesh-and-blood characters who are left alone to fight their demons. We are almost left to figure out by ourselves if they are redeemable until one of them gets his just desserts, but it’s ironically for something he didn’t do. They are each called upon at times to make split-second decisions that are life threatening, and each of them has trouble making the right decision. That kind of pressure is something most people never experience in their lives and what makes cops fascinating subjects for movies, as the real-life cops I have known always seem to have something worthwhile to say about their dangerous job that an outsider like me might not always see in the same way. Carnahan allows the cops to reach into themselves to bring up whatever torturous things they are carrying inside and has not watered down this tale to sell it as your standard Hollywood film. He makes us feel the pain of both cops and allows us to see the darkness of their work environment as something that they can’t escape from in their personal life. It’s a realistically terrifying movie that puts another notch in the belt of the long list of renegade-cop tales that successfully explored the conundrum about justice versus the law and the toll it takes on those who are the enforcers. It also shows that indie filmmaker Carnahan has the talent to shoot a major film and has earned the trust of Hollywood to get a big budget for his next Harrison Ford vehicle–the Man is deserving of this opportunity after paying some artistic dues.
REVIEWED ON 2/9/2003 GRADE: B