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Narc   A-

Paramount Pictures

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Joe Carnahan
Writer: Joe Carnahan
Cast: Jason Patric, Ray Liotta, Chi McBride, Busta Rhymes, Krista Bridges, Lina Felice, Richard Chevolleau.

Review by Rob Vaux

Once upon a time, cop movies looked a lot different than they do now. Before the wacky buddy formula of the 1980s, they embraced far grittier fare, viewing police work as a dangerous, dirty business where success was far from assured. There weren't any handsome movie stars on the mean streets they portrayed, and the line between their "heroes" and "villains" was often nonexistent. They looked dark, they looked mean, they looked like worst places in the world you'd like to be. In short, they looked a hell of a lot like Narc.

Director Joe Carnahan has fashioned a sharp throwback to police procedurals like Serpico and The French Connection, the kind of films that flourished in the early '70s but now seem all but extinct. With an unromantic setting (Detroit), an edgy subject (the dangers of undercover work), and a pair of stars (Jason Patric and Ray Liotta) known more for their on-screen intensity than their appearances in People, Narc instantly announces itself as a departure from the norm. Indeed, its opening sequence -- a stomach-churning chase between Patric's undercover cop Nick Tellis and a dealer willing to do anything to avoid capture -- throws us face-first into the unspeakable pressure cooker that such men presumably live with every day. Carnahan uses a handheld vérité technique, complimented with a washed-out blue tone in the film stock, to remove the sheen of fiction without robbing the sequence of its excitement. The chase ends messily, a harbinger of things to come.

With his spirit nearly shattered and his domestic life beginning to unravel, Tellis seeks solace in a desk job. His superiors are willing to give him one, but there's a catch. Another cop has been murdered, and the search for his killers has hit a wall. They want him to pair with the victim's former partner, Henry Oaks (Liotta), and collar the gunman; if he does, they'll grant his request. With his connections to the drug community still intact, Tellis can look in places other cops can't, and he grudgingly agrees to the assignment. Unfortunately, both he and Oaks remain on the emotional edge, and their mental state may seriously compromise what has already proven to be a dicey investigation.

The key to Narc is its emphasis on the story rather than the characters. Though both cops are well-developed, they're not the purpose of the exercise. Their goal consumes them and us, and if their personality filters into their actions, it is only through the case itself that we get to know them. The path leads into the worst elements of the Detroit underworld, forcing them to confront their own demons even as they uncover some disquieting facts about the man they hope to avenge. Both actors are very well-cast: the roles call for angry, intimidating voices, characters holding it together by sheer force of will. In other hands, they'd smack of thespian pretense, but these two fit the parts like gloves.

Carnahan complements his leads with a focused production, creating a city of empty warehouses and trash-strewn streets for his heroes to prowl. Its denizens greet knocks on the door with gunfire, and view drugs as a currency more precious than gold. And yet, despite the dark tone, Narc contains a fair amount of panache. The dialogue is as clever as any Lethal Weapon quip, yet it maintains an air of authenticity throughout. It comes from smart characters in grim situations -- real gallows humor rather than a postmodern attempt to amuse us -- and it never loses its urgent edge. The script also resists neat resolutions and other dramatic placebos, preferring to adhere to its protagonists' messy lives all the way through to the credits. Tellis's and Oak's problems won't vanish once they nab a culprit, and Narc respects that reality without denying a strong sense of storytelling.

Last year's Training Day felt very similar to this film, but it fell back too often on deus ex machina. No such security blanket can be found here, and the results are much more striking. Narc is a watershed in recent crime drama, and Carnahan and company are to be commended for achieving so much on such a comparatively limited budget. In an era where big stars and high production values are standard procedure, Narc strikes a defiantly retro chord, and outpaces its contemporaries with daring and verve. Hopefully, it marks the start of better things to come.

Review published 01.12.2003.

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