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Narc (2002) Review

Narc was directed and written by Joe Carnahan (Death Wish, Boss Level) and stars Jason Patric (Rush, The Yellow Birds), Ray Liotta (The Many Saints of Newark, Cop Land), Krista Bridges (Knuckleball, House at the End of the Street), Busta Rhymes (Shaft, Halloween: Resurrection), and Richard Chevolleau (Earth: Final Conflict, True Blue). It’s about the pairing of two detectives who are brought on to close a murder case that one is connected to, splintering apart the closer they get to finding a culprit.

The Plot: Cops and crooks addle the screens of just about everyone who watches anything. Here, that’s still the case, but Carnahan works to utilize the basic outline of a bust gone bad as a way to deliver an unflinching tale of the lengths two men must go through to even have the hope of finishing their jobs.

Ex-detective Tellis (Patric) has been offered a second chance on the Detroit police force after an undercover stint ended with the death of a suspect and a pregnant woman’s unborn child. Off the bat, Carnahan gets dirty, with grimy and bloody details brought to the forefront to immediately put viewers into the proper headspace. The condition that must be accepted for Tellis to return to the force is solving the murder of fellow cop Calvess, but that entails bringing the unhinged Detective Oak (Liotta) back onto the case which he’d already been removed from.

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It’s a narrative move that turns the “one last job” plot point on its head in that Tellis’ return would be far from his last job but joining Oak will certainly be the biggest hurdle to his desired desk jockeying. To wife Audrey’s (Bridges) dismay, Tellis and Oak pick up where the case went cold, starting a shakedown of the city that brings them to a link that won’t be much help in the verbal sense, as he lost his head to his own shotgun. Dark gallows humour is present through much of the first half, as the detectives work their way to, according to the department, a closure of the case, whereupon they’re snapped back into reality.

Neither one of them is convinced that the culprit has been put down, and they continue independently on two major suspects, Darnell (Rhymes) and Steeds (Chevolleau). Both cops feel strongly about the link between the suspects and the murder, but have different ways of approaching them, leading the movie to a semi-standoff third act uncharacteristic for these kinds of stories, which tend to stop at a happy ending. Carnahan takes Narc to another level with this kind of writing, which has elements of the classic formula but moulds it into something leagues more memorable.

The Characters: Mismatched cops are so prolific a template that they have their own subgenre; good cop, bad cop movies, buddy cop movies, whatever you want to call them, you can’t quite call Narc.

Tellis doesn’t entirely meet the standard of being the good cop, but he’s trying. With his borderline reckless behaviour getting him suspended and his first glance at coming back to law enforcement, he may be trying too much as he inserts himself into the shoes of the dead officer, internally justifying his agreement to come back. He can’t put into words why he wants to come back, but it’s clear he just wants to try his hand at doing at least a modicum of good.

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Family life and relationships are expertly detailed here, finding Tellis in a relationship with Audrey, who he met while in rehab after getting too deep undercover, that resulted in a child between them. She knows the risks of the field and doesn’t want him going back. We’ve seen that character plenty of times before, but the context of being a narcotics officer’s wife breathes new life into it. They both enjoy parenthood, but Tellis is discontent not being a part of the department and wants, of all things, a desk job, which is the kryptonite of nearly all other cops on film. Both are aware of the benefits, but only one wants to take the leap.

Oak isn’t quite the bad cop, in the same way that Tellis doesn’t meet the inverse criteria. In fact, he’s a great cop, with a 93 percent conviction rate that puts him among the best that Detroit has to offer the streets. One may see him and immediately assume he’s unfit to be on said streets thanks to his no-nonsense ethic in which regulations are sacrificed, but there’s a lot more depth than that, with his ballistic approach first coming to prominence when he beat a man pimping his daughter out for drugs and never leaving once he found he could have his own personal justice alongside legal justice.

His own personal life affects his professional one as well, with his own admission that his wife’s death from cancer made him a better cop. Every time he needs a boost, he thinks about her and the family he didn’t get the chance to have, which he created an analogue with by connecting to Calvess’ widow and daughters in the wake of his death. It’s heartening yet depressing, perfectly balanced, as is Tellis and both performances from Patric and Liotta.

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The Crime: Variants of the dead officer plot have been running rampant for decades in film, and probably a century and a half (at least) in media as a whole. With this script, there’s the rabbit hole narrative of 70s classics, the brutality of an Ayer movie, and the decay of vigilante stories to hold attention with ease.

An undercover operation being found out by the criminals it’s being acted on jolts the movie into gear, setting a frenetic, immersive depiction of the narcotics sector of police forces that doesn’t shy away from the dangers faced by the officers and the public. Tellis and a junkie run through a neighbourhood in disarray where, in a harried decision that was probably not a good one in retrospect, the detective shot at the man without stopping and while he had a hostage which ended in bloodshed. This crimson detailing peppers the movie, as each discovery is made more vivid by the usage of grisly imagery to sell the setting.

Procedural sequences reintegrate the audience after the main character joins the case, with both detectives questioning informants to no avail and getting into minor quarrels with those who think they’re playing games. Sections of the middle part of Narc can lose some clarity, with names being dropped all over the place and connections that need to be flashed back to later on a little frustrating. Everything does eventually fall back into place in the third act, which streamlines the continuity of the preceding events with a climactic raid and interrogation.

Bold enough is the director/writer to even mention the politics of all of this, starting with grilling Tellis over his bullish behaviour and keeping Oak out on the field despite causing the same level of violence, albeit with less lethal results. All the department can do is put a stamp on the case and say it’s closed, evidence permitting. It doesn’t matter if they know someone else killed one of their own, it’s if they can prove it.

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Having the detectives work off the books to conjure up their own proof is borderline criminal itself, blurring the line between legal authority and moral vigilantism. These discussions are by no means new, but Narc gets the movie to these points so effortlessly that it feels as such.

The Technics: A meagre budget didn’t stop the filmmakers behind (and in front of) Narc from creating a proficiently crafted movie. Patric and Liotta even stuck out the complete lack of paychecks to make it, and that devotion shines through.

Stylized direction sets this movie apart from plenty of other rather listless crime/thrillers, as the movie has the grainy, desaturated look of an older production, with the snappy editing and dialogue of the modern age. A brief montage is a little dated, but the presentation of everything else still holds.

Other aspects like cinematography and lighting lend to the down-and-dirty appeal of the movie, immersing the viewer into the setting with plentiful closeups, mid-angle shots, and moody visual presentation. Sound design is punchy too, accentuating the shock of each burst of violence or showing the aftermath of them.

Plenty of people took pride in making Narc, from the director, to the cast, to producer Tom Cruise. They knew what they had in their hands and shaped it into one of the most underappreciated crime movies of the century so far.

Narc is available on DVD, and Blu-ray via Paramount Home Entertainment. And if you want more of the same, FilmTagger will narc on a few titles.

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