Narc. Paramount Pictures presents a film written and directed by Joe Carnahan. Running time: 105 minutes. Rated R (for strong brutal violence, drug content and pervasive language). Starring Jason Patric, Ray Liotta, Chi McBride, Alan Van Sprang, Krista Bridges.


There is a certain level of comfort in seeing a traditional cop drama like Narc handled so well. In a time where this kind of movie is defined by style over substance, it's nice to have a film that knows we need a good story and sympathetic characters to make us care.

Nick Tellis (Jason Patric) is a Detroit undercover narcotics officer. When a botched arrest ends in the death of an unborn baby, Nick is booted from the squad. Eighteen months later, he is called back by homocide captain Cheevers (Chi McBride). The Detroit police want Nick to investigate the murder of an undercover officer named Michael Calvess (Alan Van Sprang). The police have no leads, and they need a knew perspective on the investigation. In order to solve the case, Nick teams up with Calvess's former partner, Henry Oak (Ray Liotta), a loose cannon of a cop who is known for his reckless and violent behavior. As Nick investigates the case, he becomes obsessed with finding Calvess's killer. But the deeper in he gets, the more he realises that the truth may lie within Officer Oak.

For the most part, the investigation itself is pretty straightforward. Except for the film's climax, there's not much in the way of twists or big surprises. The most interesting parts of Narc are those that deal with Nick's home life. Nick is married with a young girl, but his obsession with his job are pushing them away. These scenes give Nick a greater sense of character than is typically found in cop thrillers. Henry is also fairly well developed, but most of that comes within the film's final revelations. Narc falters once it completely abandons Nick's home life is exchange for the investigation - the police work isn't uninteresting, but it's not as compelling as Nick's personal issues.

For all of Narc's substance, there's plenty of style, too. Just about every camera trick in the book - from hand-held shots, to split-screen, to black-and white - is used, usually to great effect. Occasionally, the visual tweaks threaten to distract from the film, but it never becomes overwhelming. Director Joe Carnahan's last picture, Blood, Guts, Bullets, and Octane showed off his flair for flamboyance, and now he's proven that, given the right material (the screenplay was also written by Carnahan), he can actually craft a compelling story behind the flash.

The two lead performances are superlative. Jason Patric gives a measured, understated performance that is perfect for his character. We can feel the emotions boiling beneath his calm, subdued, exterior, and when he finally explodes, it feels like that sort of thing was bound to happen sooner or later. Ray Liotta is much less subdued, but no less impressive for it. In fact, his intense performance may be the best thing about the movie.

The movie's climax will certainly be the most talked-about part of Narc. It is a tour de force of editing and powerful performances that resonates long after the credits role. The final explanation of the plot is surprising, but not absurd, and Ray Liotta's performance during that scene borders on brilliant. The climax might not work for everyone, but for me it was undoubtedly the highlight of the film.

Narc employs the style of violence present in Scorcese's films - brutal and shocking, but never over-the-top. The blood doesn't paint the walls, it merely splatters a little bit. And when the cops or the criminals take their fists to someone, it feels like we're being hit; I grimaced once or twice throughout Narc's running length.

Narc is as dark a crime drama as is likely to be released this year. The dark atmosphere and powerhouse performances mix to create a memorable downer of a movie that will not be forgotten. Unfortunately, Narc leaves too many open ends with Nick and his family to be a wholly satisfying experience. It doesn't stop me from recommending Narc - far from it - but it keeps it from being one of the best movies of the year.

© 2003 Matt Noller