26 January 2012

Narc (2002)

Ray Liotta, left, and Jason Patric are shown in a scene from "Narc."
Joe Carnahan, director of the new Liam Neeson survival thriller "The Grey," had his breakthrough with the 2002 cop movie "Narc."

Detroit cop Henry Oak is a beast of a man, an intimidating figure with an end-justifies-the-means attitude toward law enforcement. Brought to ferocious life by Ray Liotta in "Narc," written and directed by Joe Carnahan, he's a ticking time bomb hellbent on finding the killer of his former partner and friend, an undercover narcotics cop named Michael Calvess.

Oak is the man with whom Nick Tellis (Jason Patric), a narc who's been suspended since accidentally shooting a pregnant woman 18 months earlier, must work when he's brought onto the case. The departmental brass hope Tellis can use his old street contacts to get to the killer. With his captain (Chi McBride) dangling full reinstatement in front of him, he has to accept the offer even though it will take him away from his wife (Krista Bridges) and baby son. He tries to refuse, but he's as addicted to the job as he was to the drugs he got hooked on while working undercover.

The mean Detroit streets of "8 Mile" seem almost cheerful compared to the cruel world of "Narc." Carnahan employs every stylistic trick in the book to create this effect, including extensive use of handheld camera shots (used to great effect in the opening chase scene), filters, flashbacks presented with quick-hitting, violent edits, toying with the focus and using split screen (an economic method to get us through the more mundane period of the investigation). Used intelligently, these tools all serve to enhance the story, characters, mood and tone.

Carnahan mines familiar cop-movie terrain, but this is not a "buddy" movie and nothing is played for laughs. This is a cold, brutal look at two dedicated cops with very different but effective approaches to their jobs. While most movies draw distinct lines between right and wrong, good and evil, "Narc" exists in a gray area. As they methodically go about their investigation, the routine of Tellis and Oak is not so much good cop/bad cop as it is bad cop/worse cop. We get the feeling Tellis is acting as he needed to survive working as an undercover narc, while Oak is driven by some deeply-rooted anger, the source of which is unknown to us.

Adding 30 pounds and a menacing salt-and-pepper goatee, Liotta is electrifying, reminding us of what a great actor he can be when he has strong material. It is important that Oak is not just a bloodthirsty madman. In one of many scenes that easily could seem clich├ęd but is not, Oak opens up to Tellis during a stakeout as they talk about their families and the death of Oak's wife. Oak passionately pursues his work and is protective of his murdered partner's family—he's furious when Tellis questions them without him.

Liotta has the showier role, but he knows when to pull back, and he never overshadows Patric, the movie's true lead. The conflict between Tellis and his wife is familiar, but it works. Having been there before, Tellis knows the problems that will arise when he goes back to work; the job consumes him so much that he's practically abandoning his family, but he cannot resist. His wife's concerns seem real, and Patric, who has been absent from the movies for far too long (he last appeared in "Your Friends and Neighbors" in 1998) is so convincing that the scenario works beautifully. It's a small part of the film, but it immeasurably fleshes out Tellis as a character.

Together, Liotta and Patric bounce off each other nicely, with an instant, natural camaraderie forming between the two cops. But as the investigation continues and Tellis sees more and more of Oak's violent nature, he begins to wonder just how far his new partner will go.

The details of the actual investigation are unimportant until the final act, when a few startling twists occur. Looking back, the surprises are more than simple trickery, and Carnahan makes no obvious attempts to mislead us before we get there.

The ending—far from a happy one—is unsettling and does not provide the tidy resolution most people expect from movies. Tellis's fate on the police force and that of the investigation are left open. But that is not what's important here. This is a character-driven film, and it's not about action—though there's plenty of it—or finding the bad guys.

"Narc," a showcase for two talented actors and Carnahan's technical wizardry, is a welcome entry in a tired genre.

Greg’s Grade: A

(Rated R for strong brutal violence, drug content and pervasive language. 105 minutes.)

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