It’s always disappointing to re-watch a film that you initially held in high-esteem and discover that either the years haven’t been kind or your own tastes or critical faculties have changed sufficiently to alter your opinion of it. I remember thoroughly enjoying Joe Carnahan’s gritty, violent cop drama Narc when it came out just over a decade ago, for example, but this second viewing left me feeling a little cooler and less enthusiastic about singing its praises. Perhaps some films are just made to be viewed once; I certainly preferred having better memories of this one.
The acting performances by the two leads here, which impressed me back in 2003, are – on balance – still worth highlighting. Jason Patric stars as undercover narcotics officer Nick Tellis, who we first meet midway through a thrilling high speed foot chase across a Detroit housing project. In the ensuing gunfight Tellis accidentally shoots a pregnant bystander rather than his intended target, causing the woman to miscarry; he is suspended for a considerable amount of time and apparently spends much of it at home with wife Audrey (Krista Bridges) and their own new baby. Eventually Tellis – with his many valuable underground connections – is recalled by his superiors to work with a detective named Henry Oak (a paunchy Ray Liotta) in an ongoing investigation over the death of Oak’s previous partner, Michael Calvess (Alan Van Sprang).
Apparently this death was drug-related, and Narc’s hard edge comes primarily from Liotta and Patric’s ability to add their own believable entries to The Big Hollywood Book Of Tough Guys during the enquiry: as they follow leads and question various suspects, dealers and informants they run through the gamut of shotgun-cocking, suspect-beating, door-kicking, spittle-flecked-shouting and inherent moodiness. Liotta even includes a textbook example of the urban detective’s oft-seen weary nonchalance when standing over a stinking, decaying cadaver. In spite of the macho posturing (or perhaps, you could argue, because of it) the two actors are on good form here, and it’s enough to make you wish for a brace of comebacks, even though Patric was better in an earlier, similar role (Rush) and Liotta will probably never equal the heights of Henry Hill. Still, there’s just enough in their earnest performances to distract from the tedium of watching yet another fabricated cop pairing go through the motions, and there are even echoes of more interesting recent celluloid couplings here: Se7en’s Somerset and Mills, perhaps, or even Training Day’s Hoyt and Harris.
Modern American cinema’s ongoing relationship with the Motor City’s bleakness – for goodness sake, someone please make another Detroit-based rom-com – continues apace, though many of the scenes were actually shot in Toronto, a city that apparently offers 100% of the grime with 0% of the stigma. (Torontonians: how long will you allow your city to be sullied by location scouts looking for ‘Detroit, only worse’?) The cold and the urban drabness is emphasised by a blue wash throughout, and while it’s an obvious device at least it’s in-keeping with Carnahan’s numerous nods to the better cop dramas of the 1970s; costume design aside, Narc often looks as if it was made during that decade. The most obvious homage, incidentally, is the get-up sported by Tellis, who looks like he’s either just wandered in from a Frank Serpico convention or is strictly enforcing the number one rule of 1970s undercover cops, which is to dress so that you look like an undercover cop to even the most casual of onlookers.
The bulk of Narc is formed by the duo’s investigation, which is uncompromising and gripping enough to distract attention away from all the aping of the Lumet / Friedkin / Coppola heyday, as well as the increasing number of cop clichés that stack up (in short: gruff police captain, a hero ‘castrated’ by the loss of his gun and badge, an older cop who has lost his wife in tragic circumstances which contrasts with his partner’s new, young family, etc). Unfortunately the film tails off near the end, where it unequivocally walks the path taken by more straightforward and predictable police procedurals, incorporating the requisite rapper cameo (Busta Rhymes, who does OK) and 15-20 minutes’ worth of testosterone-fuelled shouting along the way.
Narc’s regular flirtations with cliché and eventual metamorphosis into a standard cop drama, replete with crowd-pleasing twist and neatly-resolved plot, has probably changed my opinion rather than any other factor; there’s a little too much of the familiar here for it to be considered a classic of the genre, or even an original stab, and unfortunately many of the reverential hat-tips just serve to highlight its inferiority compared to the likes of Serpico and The French Connection. That said, I’m not suggesting the movie’s worth ducking if you’ve never seen it, especially if you like your crime dramas with a dose of gritty oomph: Patric and Liotta are good, the chase at the beginning is particularly worthy of praise and for the most part Carnahan doesn’t smooth any of the edges in search of a wider audience. I used to think it was an overlooked gem, and I’m less convinced of that now, but it’s definitely worth seeing once.
Directed by: Joe Carnahan
Written by: Joe Carnahan
Starring: Jason Patric, Ray Liotta, Busta Rhymes, Krista Bridges, Chi McBride
Running Time: 100 minutes