dir: Joe Carnahan
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Narc was one of two outstanding recent police-focussed dramas that came out recently, both of which were criminally ignored by audiences and deserved more respect: The other was Dark Blue, but that’s a different review. What they both had was a healthy distrust of the nobility of the boys in blue, and an eye to putting some otherwise decent, hard-working lads in a situation which shows just how much of the law they are willing to break in order to get the job done.
Jason Patric, well, he owns the film. Yeah, so it’s hard to stand up to Ray Liotta, seeing as Liotta always looks like he’s only a second away from biting your face off, but he more than holds his own over the duration of the running time. He is the film’s protagonist, Liotta is, well, we’re not sure what exactly he is, because he is clearly a chameleon whose purpose changes as the story progresses.
At movie’s start we’re introduced to a high energy cop chase which goes absurdly, viciously wrong. It occurs on foot, and has some of the most headache inducing shaky camera work that I’ve ever been privy to. It’s also sped up, and violently jagged and surreal. We see the chase through the fucked up eyes of the man being chased and the man doing the chasing. The manner in which it turns even uglier just amazed me. It’s a hardcore start to a story that seems positively gentle from then on.
This isn’t new ground for either of our two stars. Patric played an undercover narcotics officer in Rush over a decade ago, which had the wonderful Jennifer Jason Leigh in the lead, and Liotta has played both psychopathic criminals and cops his entire career. What Patric has is a great deal of skill as an actor, which he brings to this role, really getting into the head of his character, matching the physicality of the role appropriately, and despite what I guess is a relatively tiny budget helping to craft an interesting police procedural with a surprise ending, which these films rarely manage. Don’t get me wrong, the ending isn’t the reason why this is a good film. This isn’t The Sixth Sense, with a sting in the tale so complete that it changes the entire film for you. The lead up to the end is where the tension is, where the worth is. The end is just an ironic full stop.
Liotta cannot be upstaged. The ferocity and anger with which he attacks roles makes you wonder what demons the man has inside that he taps into for inspiration when he needs to. I may wonder about it, but I think I’d be terrified to actually find out. As such I often find him a terrifying presence onscreen. Here he is dependably intense. The man must have so many goddamn ulcers. He takes on so much stress and tension for his characters that he is rarely anything less than believable. You believe him, but that doesn’t mean you’d ever like to have any dealings with a man so desperately in need of anger management therapy. As Henry Oak he is a fearsome presence.
The plot focuses mostly around the efforts of a disgraced cop to find out the details of another cop’s death. In the opening things go terribly wrong, both for the woman that Patric’s character Nick Tellis accidentally shoots, and for Tellis, career-wise. From there he tries to build up his career again by taking a case that no-one else seems to want to touch.
An undercover detective called Alvess is found murdered, and no progress has been made on the case. Although initially reluctant (naturally), Tellis goes in feet first, making the solving of this case his holy grail. This alienates him from his wife, who has genuine reasons for wanting her husband to stay away from the job. Usually whenever a hardass detective, cop, man seeking vengeance etc. tries to do what he has to do, there’s always a woman in the background breaking his balls for being so committed to the job. It’s a standard in Hollywood flicks. All it adds is another unnecessary layer of conflict for Our Hero. We know if he survives the wife / girlfriend / truck driver is going to take him back in the end, it’s just used to show how important achieving that particular goal is for them. Perhaps it’s supposed to make the workaholics in the audience feel better about themselves. Of course workaholics are unlikely to ever waste time seeing movies in a theatre, so perhaps they’re enabling the wrong co-dependants.
Here the wife has a legitimate objection: she previously had to endure both his drug use as an undercover cop, and his horrific withdrawal symptoms coming off the stuff when he needed to clean up. She has every right to be concerned, and though her behaviour later on is annoying, it’s understandable. As opposed to other films where they do the same thing without giving the wife sufficient believability or sympathy (the character played by Catherine Keener in the overwrought 8MM comes to mind).
Perhaps as well I digress. Tellis attacks the case with zeal, going over everything that’s gone on before, and finding new angles previously unseen. Upon picking up the case, he becomes the immovable object that meets the irresistible force in the form of Alvess’ former partner, Henry Oak. Oak seems even more determined than Tellis to find the chuckleheads responsible for offing his partner, but then we detect that Oak has an agenda of his own. Well, we don’t detect anything, it becomes pretty bloody obvious.
And who are we to argue with Ray Liotta? Do YOU have the balls to disagree with him about anything? If you were about to park your car in a parking space, and he swerved in ahead of you, would you pull him up on it? If he wanted the last piece of pizza from the box, and had a fork clenched menacingly in his hand, would you try to take it from him? I didn’t think so, chump.
Well, Tellis does, so we are drawn into an escalating conflict where they progressively butt heads leading to an inevitable finale. For once this conflict between the two men is not played as being about ego. Mediocre screenwriters and directors love simplifying human conflict so as to be instantly identifiable. Thus conflict between men in movies often lacks the subtlety of two teenage boys comparing dick sizes in the schoolyard and then beating each other up. And thusly most conflict in these kinds of stories is reduced to the medieval concept of trial by combat: the one who is ‘righteous’ wins mystically when they finally duke it out because God or divine providence is on their side. It’s an idiotically facile concept, but you see it again and again. Look at the mediocre Training Day as a recent example.
Suffice to say that they eschew that route in this film.
As cops their methods differ little, except for the fact that Oak is even more brutal and has not a qualm in the world about infringing the rights of any criminal by beating several shades of crap out of them. So it’s not a question of ‘good cop, evil cop’. Both cops don’t exactly operate within the confines of due process and police procedure. But at least Tellis is almost ‘justifiable’ by his noble search for the ‘truth’.
The acting and direction are superlative throughout. And whilst it’s not a mould-breaking, genre burster of a movie, it held my attention and made for compelling viewing for most of its length and girth. It’s a rare example of a cop drama that I will happily watch again, that pays more honour to the boys (and girls) in blue than any assortment of awful Hollywood trashfests such as the ones released over the last three years that got far more attention, unwarranted in my opinion. Movies like 15 Minutes, SWAT, Hollywood Homicide, Taking Lives, Twisted, A Man Apart bring nothing new to the table, and with the exclusion possibly of 15 Minutes, are unremittingly fucking awful as well.
Though it has to be said that Carnahan doesn’t let a single camera technique slip him by unused, using everything he’s got in his formidable arsenal in order to hide the fact that the film has not a cracker for a budget. Admirable all the same, but next time go a bit easier on us. Since I’ve heard that he’s making the next Mission: Impossible film, I doubt that’s going to happen.
There’s a scene towards film’s end where rapper Busta Rhymes is handcuffed to a chair and beaten to a bloody pulp. Despite the fact that Busta is pretty good in this small role, I hope that the pain he felt and the blood were real. Though I know it’s unlikely, at the very least I can pretend that it was Busta Rhymes’ torturous penance for that awful duet he did with Mariah Carey a few years ago. May you both burn in hell, you bastard.
Still, the overall film, whilst ultimately ‘conventional’, is extremely enjoyable as well, mostly due to the excellent performances of the two leads, the tension maintained throughout the story and the dark tone in evidence throughout. I just hope that Jason Patric can keep landing some decent roles, because he is an actor I very much enjoy seeing on the silver screen. I have no fear that Liotta will keep getting work. If there’s one industry that relies on people being lunatics at the drop of a hat, it’s Hollywood. As God is his witness, he’ll never go hungry again.
8 times I have nightmares at night about Ray Liotta coming after me, screaming about being chased by helicopters out of 10
"It's impossible you're this dumb. " - never underestimate the human capacity for stupidity, Narc