Writer/director Joe Carnahan’s follow-up to his debut film Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane
is a failed attempt to make an intimate, gritty, and morally ambiguous cop thriller in the vein of 1970s classics like The French Connection
cannot decide whether to concentrate on the details of an investigation or focus on the murky moral collateral damage that comes from being an undercover police officer.
Though the film’s characters are never particularly interesting, the moral ambiguity of the film, even if it is often hit and miss, elevates the movie to a moderately appealing level.
Nick Tellis (Jason Patric), an undercover narcotics agent suspended for drug addiction, is blackmailed by his superiors to help Detective Oak (Ray Liotta) hunt down a cop killer. Tellis wants to get off the streets and into the safety of a desk and Tellis’s captain promises to get him a cushy desk job if he gets a conviction. Oak, who was a friend of the victim, is one of those hot tempered cops that always appear in “realistic” police movies, the ones who
say things like “this has nothing to do with procedure and everything to do with right and wrong” and proceed to beat a perp half to death. The plot to Narc
is uniquely barebones, and at first it looks like the film will be about the consequences of an obsessed, ambiguous pursuit for justice. Tellis has a baby boy and is recently married, and his wife cannot understand Tellis’s need to get back on the streets, a need he fails to understand himself. Oak on the other hand is hungry to avenge his cop friend, and Liotta’s predictably impressive aggressive temper sharply contrasts Jason Patric’s introspective, quiet cop. These two men do their jobs differently, and for different reasons, and Narc
, with its minimal plot narrative, sets up an exploration of what makes these men tick.
’s initial themes of what drives these men to get justice quickly gets bogged down with the names of dealers, suspected witnesses and other connections to the dead cop. The ambiguity of the search for criminal truth quickly, and irritatingly, takes a backseat to confusing investigatory details. Midway through the film one realizes that the depth suggested in the pre-title opening of the film-a stunning combination of a drug fueled street chase, a bureaucratic blackmailing, and sensual scenes of Tellis and his new baby-might just have been a catchy setup for another boring fight-the-powers-above police investigation. Oak berates the suits upstairs for trying to sweep the cop’s death under the carpet for racial reasons, and Tellis duly leads Oak around Detroit’s terrible neighborhoods to beat clues out of his old drug connections. Narc
struggles to maintain cohesion between its tale about these two men and how they handle their jobs, and the dull murder inquiry that keeps the narrative moving. The two cops visit snitches and the usual ghetto scum, and predictably Oak and Tellis’s different methods bump heads. Their minor conflicts during their investigation are the only thing that keeps the movie rolling as it brings to the surface the individual ways each officer seeks justice.
Carnahan shoots the entire film with the kind of handheld, crash editing, green filtered camerawork that screams “doesn’t this stuff look real? The streets are dirty and so is my film!” but Narc
content fails to match the way Carnahan portrays the harsh Detroit streets. Undercover narcotics agents continually have to play around the line of what is or is not considered appropriate legal action, and Narc
initially proposes an exploration of how these officers come to define “appropriate action” and the consequences of these decisions on their family life. I say initially because even though what drives Tellis and Oak to do their jobs is not clear, and in fact not very interesting, in the last twenty minutes of Narc
suddenly the characters and the plot details and the grim aesthetics of the film all unite and practically light the screen on fire in an explosion of cinematic energy. All the useless plot details of the previous hour and a half irritatingly burst into importance and the film resumes its initial themes of blurry truth and a warped, but practical sense of justice. Beating confessions out of suspects, dirty cops, and police drug addiction all rear their ugly heads and the frantic editing pace, handheld camerawork and fitting, but predictable, score by Soderbergh-fav Cliff Martinez finally synergize with the content of the film. The secrets and motivations behind these completely different cops-Oak a violent lone wolf and Tellis a man confused with his role as an undercover agent and a family man-snap to the front of the film when Tellis confronts Oak over his role in the cop killing. Here the film finally solidifies its dark and sinisterly ambiguous violent tone. It may be too little too late, but the last section of the film is so interesting that it makes Narc
worth the confused, dull build up. Both Patric and Liotta put in fine performances, all confusion and inner anger respectively, and it is Carnahan’s unfortunately unfocused script that does not do the actors justice until Narc