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 post-traumatic anxieties.
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 police work – 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 too deep into the drug scene before his lifeless corpse was pulled from a tunnel by partner Henry Oak (Ray Liotta).
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 s**t. What fuels Oak’s simmering fire pit, Tellis asks himself, and exactly what are the volatile man’s motives for resolving this case?
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 crime-fighting monster.
“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 Soderberg’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.