Director: Joe Carnahan
Cast: Jason Patric, Ray Liotta, Krista Bridges, Chi McBride, Busta Rhymes, Richard Chevolleau, Alan Van Sprang, Anne Openshaw
MPAA Rating: (for strong brutal violence, drug content and pervasive language)
Running Time: 1:45
Release Date: 12/20/02 (limited); 1/10/03 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik
The most overused adjective for describing cop movies is typically "gritty," although writer/director Joe Carnahanís Narc exemplifies why itís usually appropriate diction. The film epitomizes the word in almost every relevant contextórough, realistic, unsentimental, stark, brave. Plot-wise the movie is a standard police procedural in which lots of investigating leads to more investigation which reaches a dead end until someone finds the evidence to another lead, and the cycle continues. Where Narc sets itself apart from the typical cop picture is in its depiction and acknowledgment of the domestic lives of the cops involved and its intense moral ambiguity. Generally, the line between good and evil is clearly drawn in stories of this nature, and police corruption is usually regulated by individual acts. Carnahan abandons all such pretenses and goes as far as to suggest that such boundaries and restrictions are impossible and unrealistic when placed within the framework of an inherently corrupt system.
The film opens with a gripping sequence in which a handheld camera follows Detective Nick Tellis (Jason Patric, adeptly portraying the subtle changes in his outlook on events) as he chases after a junkie on a desperate escape attempt. It leads to an intense standoff between the two, as the addict holds a child hostage, threatening to inject him with the potentially deadly contents of a syringe. Tellis shoots and kills the perpetrator, saves the boy, and accidentally hits a nearby pregnant woman, eventually terminating her pregnancy. A year and a half later, Tellis is no longer on the force, but an undercover narcotics officer has been killed in a brutal beating and shooting. Considering Tellisí past experience in the same field, the powers-that-be are convinced he could play a vital role in the arrest and conviction of the killers. The slain officerís partner Detective Henry Oak (Ray Liotta, in one of his best impassioned performances in a while) is also kept on the case because of the added, objective help. The two team up to investigate the underworld of Detroit, meeting some of Tellisí old contacts and stumbling closer and closer to the truth.
Itís a fairly typical scenario for the genre, and for the most part, the film doesnít stretch too far outside the ordinary as the plot unfolds. For these scenes in which the characters come closer to the solution of the mystery, they serve basic plot momentum. Oak is passionate in his work; Tellis is more prudent. What slightly throws off the usual antithesis of characters is that both will adjust to the situation at hand. Oak shows a personal side occasionally, especially when Tellis goes to visit the deceased copís widow (a small but strongly affecting performance by Anne Openshaw) on his own. Tellis is able to switch gears and show a reckless side, especially when it comes to questioning unwilling possible informants. The reason for Tellisí discretion is apparent, considering how the film opens, but Oak is explored a little more than we would expect. In one scene, he reveals his past family life, telling of the death of the wife who kept him sane during his first few years on the force and giving an understanding of his tactics. Basically, he has nothing to lose. Carnahan likes to look into these peopleís domestic situations in a way that adds a certain depth to their roles. Tellisí wife, of course, isnít happy with his decision, but the scene in which she confronts him works because we have seen the family functioning normally beforehand. Tellis is also a father, and if my math is right, his wife was most likely pregnant when he accidentally shot the woman in the beginning.
The unexpected part comes in the scene where Tellis visits the widow. We donít expect a film to take any time with the family of a character who doesnít play a major role in the plot. Then the movie begins to play more with expectations in its stunning finale, which is perhaps one of the most complicated and surprising endings Iíve seen in some time. This is where things become complicated, and the film reaches an extraordinary level. Itís similar to Rashomon in the way it retells the story from different perspectives. When the first perspective is told, the ending seems ready to crumble under the plot-heavy dialogue and a pretty simple, predictable conclusion. Then we see what the filmís doing as yet another point of view is seen. The ultimate conclusion forces one not only to think about what has happened but also to contemplate what it means to these characters. Thereís also the added level of considering the consequences for these people if the truth is revealed. The final shot implies that thereís no way around it. Thereís no real villain by the end. One characterís actions seem wrong and irresponsible but then thereís the added level of circumstance, which always plays an important role in qualifying an individualís actions. It all essentially comes down to the idea that the system isnít corrupt because of bad people but because the entire concept behind it is corrupt and corrupting.
Narc is certainly alive before the conclusion, but once it hits, the film is reborn into a cynical and weary story of sins and hopes of the past coming to light. The ending doesnít redefine the way we view the film as a whole nor does it elevate whatís come before it any more than standard police procedural, but it does remind me of an old proverb: "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."
Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.