2003, R, 105 min. Directed by Joe Carnahan. Starring Ray Liotta, Jason Patric, Busta Rhymes, Krista Bridges, Anne Openshaw.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Jan. 10, 2003
Fresh and raw like a blown-out vein, Narc takes a walking-dead, cop-flick subgenre and beats new life into it. Sure, the backspatter's going to muss your psyche, but think of it as an investment in cinematic retooling. It's one of the grittiest, wiliest, downright nastiest bad-cop/worse-cop films to ooze down the pike in ages. While its sheer, headlong intensity reminds me of crime novelist Andrew Vachss' tales of urban blight, Narc instead finds more direct antecedents in the cop outings of the Seventies: There's more than a touch of Frank Serpico, Popeye Doyle, and the bold, brash New Centurions hanging around the periphery, and like those films, too, director Carnahan refuses to let style win out over substance. In its dark heart, Narc is a morality tale about the emotional dangers of going too far (in this case going too far in one's workplace), and the subtle shifting of identity and allegiance that idly bobs to the surface when focus is either ratcheted up too high or lost altogether. Make the workplace in question the Detroit Police Department's 4th Precinct and voila! -- disaster looms. Patric plays undercover officer Nick Tellis, a good cop with a bad past (like his character in Rush, he's discovered that hanging out with street filth gets you dirty, too), a frustrated wife, and a 10-month-old baby boy. When, in a harrowing pre-credits sequence, his armed pursuit of a junkie ends with an innocent mother-to-be hemorrhaging on a concrete playscape, he succumbs to the need for a desk gig. To get it, his superiors put him back out on the mean streets one final time, teaming him with hair-trigger Lt. Det. Henry Oak (Liotta), who's lost both his partner in a going-to-ice cold case and his wife to cancer. Oak seethes so much he ought to cut the crap and get a job as a tea kettle; he maims first and asks questions later. Together the unlikely pair begin to warm the case around the edges, which only makes for singed fingers, both at home and on the street where they engage in the sort of ritualized police procedure that made Seventies cop films the high point that they were. Liotta has done this before, too -- in Unlawful Entry and the great Cop Land -- but he's older now, almost grizzled, and he plays the part better than ever. (He looks as though he hasn't caught a decent night's sleep since the Ford administration.) Carnahan, who previously helmed the blink-and-you-missed-it actioner Blood, Guts, Bullets & Octane, here dials things both down a notch and way, way up. His juddering, stroboscopic flashbacks are like a prelude to an epileptic freakout, and the whole scabby epic seems primed for seizure at any moment. Narc has a cool core, though, and Carnahan wraps the cop-shop horror show in a musty blanket of emotional unsalvageability. Tellis' wife, Audrey, is ably played by Bridges, and Anne Openshaw, as the Oak's dead partner's wife, is sickly with grief to the point that you want to send her a wreath. Like a junkyard bitch, Narc's bite is worse than its bark, but only just.