After two and a half years of undercover work, Officer Nick Tellis (Jason Patric) has been sucked a little too far into the drug underworld. The movie opens with the end of that downward spiral when the arrest of a particularly nasty piece of work ends in bloody tragedy. Suspended, Nick spends the next 18 months pulling his life together, marrying his girlfriend and seeing the birth of his son. Still, he’s just getting by, and just when he thinks he’s out, THEY PULL HIM BACK IN AGAIN!
When another undercover narcotics cop is found dead, the political ramifications heat up as the trail turns cold. The best chance and possibly the biggest obstacle to solving the case is the dead cop’s partner, Lt. Harry Oak (Ray Liotta), as respected and decorated as he is unstable. The police brass then lure Nick back to work on the case as Oak’s new partner. In retrospect, this is not unlike hiring Ted Bundy to baby-sit Jeffrey Dahmer. As the facts quickly point to something very, very messy, the case and Oak unravel at roughly the same speed. Lots and lots and lots of trouble ensue.
Writer/director Joe Carnahan had made a small splash with an indie debut, “Blood, Guts, Bullets, and Octane”, a little too drunk on his own style. This time around he not only has it right, but has taken a decisive step away from all the Tarantino wannabes toward being his own man. If he reminds me of anyone, it would be Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream) in each director’s masterful control of cinema to elevate a small story about marginal characters into a visually dazzling epic of human tragedy. Patric and Liotta are as tense and great as they’ve ever been as two cops unable or unwilling to escape their old cycles of behavior in an effort to resolve the murder of another who succumbed to his. Still, as soulful as their performances are, the star here is Carnahan. Too rarely in action films these days do the helmer’s stylistic shenanigans synch with the material as it does here. The script even peters out a little toward the endgame, though Carnahan the auteur does not. The best thing I can say about this film is that I can’t wait to see what the director does next.