“Narc” is a fast-paced, in your face thriller that delivers on refreshing levels. It is a unique movie of a genre that is anything but. It's a cold film that's often gritty and brutal, but not as abrasive as some of the more depressing dramas like "City By The Sea."
The movie opens with Detective-sergeant Nick Tellis (Jason Patric) chasing a suspect through the suburban city backyards. The shot is done amateurish, as if the cameraman is following the chase on foot. Through the shaky unsteady motions, we make out a playground that we all know will end the chase in tragedy. Sure enough, Tellis accidentally shoots a pregnant woman when trying to catch the suspect.
Tellis is put on leave where we see him at home with his wife and infant son. His wife is naturally content with him off the streets; she being one of those wives who apparently didn’t realize how many hours detectives put in before promising to spend the rest of her life with him. Yes, their relationship status will eventually be thrown into the wind, but that sub-plot is the least thing we’re concerned with. Like "8MM" the focus on the child and distraught wife come off as a deliberate attempt to play the sympathy card. Fortunately, this movie doesn't stay on the topic for too long.
A year later after the incident, Tellis’s captain (Chi McBride) calls him back to the force and gives him a new assignment. This is where “Narc” begins to separate from the zillion other cop-revenge movies in that Tellis has no desire to work again. I almost expected an upgraded version of Tellis that was stronger and ready to hit the streets. But Tellis needs money and confesses that his street job isn’t cutting it. His captain then offers him a better paying desk job if he lands a conviction in the one case nobody can solve, the murder of an undercover officer during a drug deal gone bad.
Now we meet Henry Oak (Ray Liotta), the detective who lost his partner in that drug bust. The captain warns Tellis that Oak is a loose-cannon, as we see him beating a handcuffed suspect with a cue ball in a sock. When they first meet, Oak tells his new partner, "I swear I will make them pay," ready to start his quest for vengeance.
Tellis and Oak make a great duo. They’re both rough and rugged, taking the lead individually at the right time, neither of them ever playing the sidekick. Through most of the movie, they waltz together without toe-stepping on each other, and know when to sit one out when the other one is interrogating a suspect or following a lead. But as the movie progresses, brow-raising events turn up unanswered questions that will being to alienate the two detectives. It will go to the point of Oak shutting Tellis out of the investigation, blinded by his anger and persistence to close the case. There appears to be skeletons in Oak's closet, and Tellis will try to figure that out as well as the case. The game is played controversially, which makes for an extremely entertaining cop thriller whose pace never slows down.
Unlike many cop dramas, this one is smart and witty when it could have easily fallen static. There's a hint of political motivation, which is more for us to think about that we can apply to real life. Oak challenges that the force will readily prosecute a white guy simply because they know they won't have the racial element thrown at them.
The dialogue is funny, setting up good laughs when Tellis and Oak go to work. Though their communication is almost always in the form of yelling and screaming, the intelligible parts are worth remembering. At one point Tellis remarks during a raid with a red face as he stares down a frightened suspect, "Ah, what do we have here…guns and bagels!"
Their aggressive approach to forcing suspects to confess may not always fall along the lines of legal and ethical, but it makes us wonder how far cops really go to get drug dealers and criminals to cooperate. The abusive treatment is nothing new in this genre, but the execution in "Narc" is stylish. The credit must go to the fine acting that I mention in the next paragraph.
Both Patric and Liotta give stellar performances as cops who aren't afraid to cross the line. The emotional output remained high throughout the duration, as I wouldn't be surprised if they left the set everyday with sore throats from all that yelling. This is the only movie that I can think of where both leading actors give their best performances. Even if the plot was horrible (which it wasn't), the acting alone would have been enough to keep "Narc" afloat.
"Narc" manages to deal with the same horrifying material that you'd get from any other graphic movie, but it does so that isn't offensive. There's a scene where the two detectives stumble upon a corpse rotting in a bathtub. At this point, directors like to exploit the use of graphic images and force the movie to come to a standstill. But "Narc" moves fluidly, as our two detectives complete the puzzle while the coroner diagnosis the cause of death.
The mystery surrounding the death of Oak's partner is what keeps us tuned in, but the climax doesn't completely deliver. It's nothing that director/writer Joe Carnahan could have done unless the script was altered. As do the detectives, we try to figure out who murdered Oak's partner. A few possibilities are put on the table, but we know off the bat that many of them aren't plausible. Therefore, once you find your first premise to be false, nailing your second guess is almost a sure thing.
Although technically a 2002 film, "Narc" was released nationwide early on in 2003, and sets the bar for future cop/thriller movies to come, look forward to "Dark Blue" which deals with corruption from within the force. But good or not, it won't be easy matching the standards of "Narc," a movie for the drama fans and the action buffs. It's got stylish directing, great acting and strong ambition, perfect to kickoff the new year.