Read an alternative review by Matt Day (Region 2 DVD)
Familiarity is the millstone which weighs down Narc, a gritty police drama starring Jason Patric and Ray Liotta as Detroit detectives investigating the murder of an undercover cop. In many ways this is a very good film - you can't fault the acting, the direction, the production or the dialogue. Unfortunately the film's plot recalls so many other gritty cop movies and TV shows that it's hard to get too involved with it. At the same time I was admiring the skill with which it was made, I was recalling other films which covered the same ground earlier. The two stars themselves have been on similar territory with Rush and Cop Land.
The irony is, Narc is based on a real murder case but it plays like hard-boiled fiction. Sgt Nick Tellis (Patric) used to be an undercover narcotics cop (or 'narc') but he's currently on suspension following the accidental shooting of a pregnant woman. He's offered his badge back if he'll take over a murder case. Michael Calvess, a fellow narc, was beaten and shot and the investigation is going nowhere. Tellis agrees as long as he can work with the dead cop's ex-partner, Lt Henry Oak (Liotta), a loose cannon with a vicious temper who was taken off the case and is in trouble with Internal Affairs over his brutal methods. Oak believes his partner was killed by drug dealers who discovered he was a cop and, together, Tellis and Oak take to the streets and shake down the low-lives Calvess associated with.
Like Training Day, one of the many films to which this bears a passing resemblance, Narc is more or less a two-hander with Patric and Liotta given the only two substantial roles as two complex but very different cops. Both actors are on top form. Patric, who can come off as bland in the wrong part, makes Tellis an effective protaganist, self-hating, haunted by a mistake and driven by a need to uphold justice, even if it means losing his family or his life. Liotta, a brilliant actor with a tendency to ham it up, plays Oak as a burned-out cop fuelled only by rage, who treats criminals as if they've personally sinned against him. Instead of going over the top, Liotta keeps the character human and by the end of the film, we know why he is the way he is and even sympathise with him a little.
I just wish there'd been more to the story or that it had made a little more sense. There's a major problem with the ending, which reveals in flashback what really happened to Officer Calvess and why. It's supposed to be a grimly ironic twist but, in light of what we learn, many of the events preceding it don't add up. Ask yourself why a character went to the lengths he did to cover it up. What did he hope to gain?
Then there's the nagging feeling of familiarity I mentioned. In Spielberg's 1960s-set Catch Me If You Can, Leonardo DiCaprio learns to pass as a doctor and a lawyer by watching them on television, a sly joke about the amount of lawyer and doctor shows on American TV at the time. Today he'd have no trouble impersonating a policeman. There are so much cops on TV, in the movies and in bookshops that you could easily spend your entire life as an armchair detective. With so much competition, a cop movie has to be distinctive. Training Day worked as pure entertainment and had Denzel Washington's flamboyant performance. Narc tries to be more true to life but, for all its marvellous acting and virtuoso direction, it offers little you haven't seen before.
If nothing else, Narc is an impressive calling card for writer / director Joe Carnahan. It shows he has great visual style, works well with actors and can write good dialogue. Despite its dramatic flaws, the film's full of memorable moments, my favourite being the snitch with the STD. Since Narc premiered at the 2002 Sundance film festival, it's landed Carnahan gigs directing Harrison Ford in the private eye thriller A Walk Among The Tombstones and making the film version of Killing Pablo, about Colombian druglord Pablo Escobar. Based on the potential he shows here, both films should be worth waiting for.