Narc (2002)

After a particularly dangerous and disastrous chase, undercover Narcotics officer Nick Tellis (Jason Patric) decides to resign from the Detroit Police Department. During this chase, he shot at a man who had a hostage and wound up causing the hostage, a pregnant woman, to miscarry. Thinking on his wife and child, he decided that it’s best to call it quits while he’s still alive. In the movies, retired cops don’t get to stay retired, so in Narc, Nick gets called back into action for one last investigation.

Said investigation involves a dead undercover cop. Michael Calvess (Alan van Sprang) was shot dead at some point, and the other officers are having trouble finding any leads. With Nick still possibly having some connections to the criminal underground, he is chosen to look for some leads. He is teamed up with Michael’s friend, Henry Oak (Ray Liotta), a live wire, possibly mentally unstable man who wants revenge, not necessarily justice. We have our crime, we have our mismatched cops, and as a result, we have a movie.

Narc is a gritty cop drama that feels as if it could be an episode of CSI, if CSI allowed for blood and profanity. And, perhaps, if darker subject matter that probably isn’t okay on television would be allowed. And if an episode of CSI was 105 minutes instead of what I assume is around 45. Okay, so maybe it wouldn’t work as an episode of CSI at all. Still, it gives off that kind of feel. It’s a cop drama, and CSI is the most prominent example of that genre, even if it is a television series.

Neither of these police officers is a terribly good person. Nick has a history of drug abuse and probably other forms of abuse, while Henry will go to any lengths to get what he needs. He’s willing to brutalize a potential suspect or even a witness to get the information he requires. A great deal of the film’s finale requires you to know that despite these cops both being “bad,” they’re both very good at their jobs. You just have to try to figure out which one is “better,” both as a person and as a police officer.

The film takes us down the rabbit hole into the grimy and dirty work that is being an undercover police officer. Some of this might be true-to-life, while other aspects of it are likely exaggerated for the purposes of the film. Still, even if it’s not the most realistic depiction of the profession, it does provide some insight not only into being an undercover cop but also the toll that it takes on the people involved. We see both the physical and mental harm it does to its characters in great detail.

Narc works significantly better as a drama than as a thriller. Its insight into the heads of its characters is poignant and powerful. Its attempt to build suspense is far less of a success. The climax hinges on trying to figure out who’s telling the truth — some drug dealers or one of the cops — and as we get Rashomon-like explanations it just gets tiresome. The earlier scenes of seeing how taxing the job is wind up being far more interesting and powerful.

Joe Carnahan served as both the writer and director of Narc, and he’s crafted a tight and stylistic film. Nobody’s going to accuse Narc of lacking a distinct style and that means that, from a visual standpoint, you’re always going to have something interesting to look at. Even when the plot isn’t going anywhere — and these points are few and far between; this is a tight experience — you’re not going to get bored because of how the film works on your eyes. There are handheld shots, split-screens, color filters, etc. If there’s a way to shoot a scene, it’s likely been used here.

Despite this, there’s a uniform look of bleakness that is present throughout most of Narc. This isn’t a happy film, and its look reflects that. Much of the film is washed-out and gray. Scene after scene contains anger or sadness. You don’t come away from Narc with a smile on your face, but you might have gained some insight into the human condition. And it’s the films that do that which are most worth watching, isn’t that right?

Apart from the screenplay and the proficiency with which Joe Carnahan has directed it, Narc is successful because of its lead actors. Jason Patric plays the more logical of the two leads, although he always seems to have something bubbling underneath, ready to let out. Ray Liotta is the more over-the-top, unpredictable member of the force, and as a result has the more “showy” role. Personally, I thought Patric — a more unknown actor — did the better work, but both actors are very good in this film.

Narc is a no-nonsense cop drama about a couple of bad police officers who are very good at their jobs. It’s stylistic, it’s tightly plotted, it has a great understanding of the consequences of taking a high-pressure job, and it works as a drama about these two people and their case — even more so than it does as a thriller about solving exactly what happened to the deceased undercover cop. This is a good movie and one that I think is worth checking out, especially if you enjoy CSI and want to see a grittier, more violent and profane, cop drama.

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