NARC

January, 2003, Drama

Directed by:Joe Carnahan

Starring:Jason Patric, Ray Liotta, Chi McBride, and Busta Rhymes

Nine years ago, an aspiring young director named Joe Carnahan, inspired by the police documentary Thin Blue Line, wrote and produced a short film entitled Gun Point. Unable to get the subject of undercover police work out of his system, he expanded the script from that short work and finally got actor Ray Liotta, (Goodfellas, Cop Land) to produce it as a feature-length film, the first for Carnahan as a director and for Liotta as producer. They have to be pleased with the results; despite its limited budget and grisly subject, NARC has received critical acclaim, and a big boost from Tom Cruise, who became involved in the movie's distribution. Whether it will please general audiences depends upon how much capacity they have for its particular combination of violence, nihilism and social decay.

This is essentially a murder mystery wrapped up as a police procedural. An undercover cop has been brutally murdered and the ranking officers in the department suspect that his partner, Lt. Henry Oak, (Liotta) may be involved. Another undercover officer, Det. Nick Tellis, (Jason Patric) is pressured to take over the investigation when no conclusive proof can be found establishing responsibility for the crime. Tellis, in turn, has been on leave since he killed an innocent pregnant woman while apprehending a drug dealer in an unrelated incident. He reluctantly takes the assignment because he wants to be returned to active duty, but relieved of further responsibility to engage in casework; his bosses promise him a desk job and promotion if he'll do this last piece of field work and resolve the suspicions about Lt. Oak one way or another. 

Tellis convinces his superiors to allow Oak to work with Tellis on the case in order to speed the investigation to conclusion. In doing so, Tellis becomes impressed with Oak's integrity and dedication to finding his partner's killer, despite a growing amount of circumstantial, but damning evidence that Oak's motivations are not what they appear to be, especially regarding his dead partner's young wife and children. The oddly paired duo work burrow through the sordid world in which Oak's partner was working, brutalizing suspects and informants alike to obtain leads, arguing with their superiors and wearily plowing through the mountain of evidence amassed during the investigation. Tellis discovers inconsistencies in the crime's paper trail, and then connections to his own earlier cases which lead to a final confrontation, (stolen from Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs"?) with two dealers whose role in the policeman's death turns out to be not what it appears.

As Tellis, Patric brings the same emotional constipation to his role that he first exhibited over a decade ago in After Dark My Sweet; his ability to reflect a simultaneous combination of confusion, violence and sensitivity remains vivid and effective. While his range as an actor may not be broad, it's unique. He carries the baggage of his earlier trauma and a failing marriage in his every expression,

conveying the frustrating exhaustion of his work and his growing suspicions with a conviction that's both credible and necessary to explain the intricacies of the plot. 

As Lt. Oak, Liotta has the best role of his career, surpassing the slick, Mafia wanna-be he portrayed in Goodfellas. Liotta's widowed, weary and explosive Henry Oak is a walking landmine, outraged by his partner's violent death at the hands of people Oak considers little better than pond scum, and contemptuous of the police procedures which restrain his passion for vengeance in the name of protecting the rights of suspects. Liotta brings a mesmerizing, lethal vitality to this urban Captain Ahab, infusing him with a heroic dedication as obsessive as it is unnerving. There's so much to admire in this loose cannon, and yet so much to fear at the same time; it's a performance of sustained intensity, perfectly counterbalanced by Patric's hesitating, introspective wariness.

All this testosterone is delivered in the kind of gritty, post-French Connection realism now much in evidence in T. V. crime series; garbage decorates the streets, light bulbs burn at low wattage in run-down police department squad rooms, bureaucrats remain more concerned with public image than pursing the truth, and the street level criminals appear as dirty and ugly as they are soulless. This turf is a bit too well known and many of the clues in Carnahan's plot get buried so deeply under his muffled soundtrack and rapid-fire editing that the deathbed exposition of what really happened becomes almost incomprehensively dense and leaves too many loose ends unexplained. Most worrisome of all however, is the director's world-view; it's so uniformly despairing of everyone and everything that the audience has a hard time caring about the characters he and his actors bring so wonderfully to life; you leave the theater exhausted and disillusioned, but not without a real appreciation for the talent involved in this ultimately unsatisfying thriller.  

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