Director : Joe Carnahan
Screenplay : Joe Carnahan
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Ray Liotta (Henry Oak), Jason Patri (Nick Tellis), Chi McBride (Capt. Cheevers), Krista Bridges (Audrey Tellis), Busta Rhymes (Beery), Richard Chevolleau (Steeds), Alan Van Sprang (Michael Calvess)
Writer/director Joe Carnahan has a generic, unimposing name, the kind you would expect to see in the credits of a straight-to-video slugfest. And, in some ways, that is exactly what his sophomore film, Narc, is, except that it is filmed with such energy and bravado and boasts two performances by Ray Liotta and Jason Patric that are so impressive that it rises above its generic roots and becomes something that is very nearly powerful.
The story is set in the dreary, wintry grayness of Detroit. Patric stars as Nick Tellis, an undercover police officer who, in the film’s bravura opening sequence (shot entirely with a vertiginous handheld camera), chases down a crazed drug dealer and, although he gets his man, also critically wounds a pregnant woman, causing her to lose her child. Eighteen months and a significant demotion later, Tellis is asked to go back undercover again, except this time as the partner of Henry Oak (Ray Liotta), a frighteningly effective and dangerously unstable police detective whose beloved partner, Michael Calvess (Alan Van Sprang), was killed during an undercover operation. For Tellis, this is an opportunity for redemption and also a chance to get a high-level desk job, which will make his wife, Audrey (Krista Bridges), very happy. Oak, on the other hand, just wants revenge on the ones who killed is partner.
Narratively, Narc follows a fairly routine police procedural outline, following Tellis and Oak as they track down leads in the grimy drug underworld of Detroit. Having worked two and a half years undercover, Tellis has gained a number of contacts who might give them the information they need to crack the case, which at this point has just about gone stale. In the course of the investigation, we follow the two detectives through some of the seediest locations imaginable, from grungy crack houses to the bathroom of a pathetic junkie who inadvertently vaporized his own skull with a shotgun while using it as a bong. At the same time, we are given insights into their personal lives, particularly the increasingly strained relationship between Tellis and his wife, who fears that, if he goes back undercover, bad things will happen. Oak has his own sad personal story, and it is a testament to Liotta’s top-notch performance that, with a single story told in the front seat of a car, he manages to evoke sympathy for a maliciously brutal and otherwise repugnant character.
Ultimately, the how’s and why’s of the investigation itself are ultimately less interesting than the responses of the two central characters, who in no way fit the generic buddy cop formula. Oak, who is as tall, hulking, and solid as his name suggests, is the older of the two, but he is in no way a role model. Blunt and to the point, Oak lives by his own rules, and the only reason he is tolerated is because he has a 93% conviction rate. Tellis, although younger and more willing to play by the rules, is no angel himself, having at one time battled his own drug demons. Together, they are a match made in hell, and as the investigation goes deeper and begins to unearth unsavory clues that implicate people other than drug dealers, their relationship intensifies to the point of snapping.
Carnahan, whose feature debut was the Tarantinoesque low-budget action-comedy Blood Guts Bullets & Octane, rachets the tension tighter and tighter as the film progresses, using Rashomon-style multiple subjective flashbacks of Calvess’ death to underscore the ultimate impossibility of ever knowing what really, truly happened. Tellis is searching for the truth, but that may be an impossibility because Oaks just wants someone to pay. Vengeance is his operative word, and when he and Tellis finally nab two presumably guilty gun-running drug dealers (Busta Rhymes and Richard Chevolleau) in their warehouse hide-out, it seems that all the strands are ready to come together—Tellis will find out what really happened and Oak will get his revenge.
Of course, things are never so easy, and Narc eventually ends on a potentially ironic close-up of a tape-recorder that may or may not have captured the “definitive” telling of Calvess’ death. Because the ending still relies on someone’s explaining what really happened—which has been shown several times in the film to be faulty—we can never really be sure what “really happened.” In its own bloody, brutal way, Narc transcends its generic roots and takes an ambitious stab at the heart of truth itself.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick