70s retro is a scary term. It brings to mind drunken students in lurid flares and polyester shirts dancing to the Bee Gees at a debauched party to celebrate some great landmark in their lives (the end of exams, graduation, a day that ends in the letter y) but, thankfully, the term can bring to mind far less frightening images. With Narc director Joe Carnahan has crafted a film that will endlessly be described as 70s retro, but here it unlocks memories of the likes of Friedkin, Coppola and Scorsese.
Michael Tellis (Jason Patric) is a narcotics officer, a narc, working under deep cover he lives every day of his life around the lowest echelon of society – thieves, drug dealers, and desperate drug users. After a particularly bloody confrontation with a dealer in which an innocent bystander was seriously wounded Tellis finds himself on suspension, his superiors reluctant to restore him to active duty, but their hand may well be forced by political worries. Two months ago another narc, Michael Calvess (Alan Van Sprang), also working undercover, was brutally slain. His partner, Henry Oak (Ray Liotta), refuses to let the city close the case and is making far too much noise. He’s an old-school cop, willing to do whatever is required to catch the suspects – be it working within the rules or not – and he’s not so worried about convictions, simply justice. Blaming African-Americans for the killing, and not using such politically correct terminology, he’s close to causing the department a public relations disaster and creating racial tensions that would be a political nightmare, the lid needs to be put on the case sooner rather than later. Tellis moved in many of the same circles as Calvess, and he’s offered a deal – partner Oak until the end of the investigation, make an arrest, and keep Oak under control, and he’ll be rewarded with the safe, comfortable desk job he craves so he can live long enough to watch his newborn son grow up.
The assignment is reluctantly accepted, in spite of protestations from his wife, even though she is unaware of just how deep he is returning into this seedy world – if she finds out the truth there could be serious repercussions, Tellis needs to end this quickly and quietly. Oak, however, doesn’t seem to be working from the same police manual Tellis is familiar with, bending the rules, calling in favours, and showing a total disregard for the rights of anyone that may hold information about the murder, he is singularly obsessed with finding the killers, not caring even if he has a job at the end of it. It’s going to be nigh-on impossible for Tellis to keep him on a leash.
Narc is a film that wears its influences on its sleeve, unashamed to bear more than a little resemblance to the classic The French Connection, it’s proud to be mentioned in the same sentence, and make no mistake it is far from an unfavourable comparison. The cold, snowy streets of Detroit are a stones throw from Friedkin’s New York classic, brought bang up to date with all the brutality the 70s weren’t inclined to show on screen. Oak is a more violent cop than you’d ever like to come across, with his hatred for spousal abusers and need to carry out his own sentencing bringing to mind LA Confidential’s Bud White, that is if Russell Crowe weighed another 60 pounds, had a face like an angry grizzly bear and was coming at you with a pool ball in a sock. Jason Patric’s role also bears a strong resemblance to another, but this time it’s his own performance in 1991’s Rush, but more than a decade on he slips into the role of the haggard cop with the world on his shoulders as easily as the addicts slip into unconsciousness. The years have only helped him though, adding wrinkles to an already tormented brow, it’s performances like these that make you wonder how the two leads have managed to slip in and out of the public eye so often.
Carnahan handles both his camera and his cast with the assured hand of a far more experienced director, despite Narc being his first ‘proper’ full length film – his previous effort, Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane had a budget of just $8,000, which is a quarter of the budget of the ultra-cheap Clerks. It could be argued that when you’re tracing so closely around the lines of greatness it’s a simple process, but many have tried such tactics before and come off as nothing but cheap imitators. Narc is the genuine article, Carnahan – who also wrote the script – crosses all the t’s and dots all the i‘s to produce a film so brutally realistic you feel more like a witness than a simple observer. As these things have a tendency of doing, the murder case reveals itself to be far more than it first appeared, with motives and involvements appearing from previously unimagined directions, but the script never feels like it is hung on a series of twists, it simply unfolds before your eyes. The supporting cast are all suitably sleazy, and Busta Rhymes even manages to buck the trend of rappers making awful vanity appearances on film, his drug dealer coming off less than favourably at the hands of Oak; he actually seems more concerned with putting in a good performance than looking good.
So Narc isn’t the most original film to hit screens in recent years, firmly in the slow burn thriller niche that so many 70s greats occupied, a story of a disgraced cop trying to redeem himself, with another out for revenge, these and more things about Carnahan’s debut have been seen many times before but it matters not. True originality is a very difficult thing to obtain; at least Carnahan has shunned current stylistic vogues and rooted his film in a cool that will never go out of fashion. It may have made the film a nightmare to get made – Narc was shot on a shoestring budget without a distribution deal in place, despite Liotta’s name being attached – but not only is he reaping the rewards now but Carnahan can be assured that this is a film that will be fondly remembered, while the myriad filmmakers that can manage nothing more than simple minded mimicry are almost instantly forgotten.
The transfer here is dark, gritty, with washed out colours – exactly as it’s supposed to be. The near constant palette of cold blues, and lacklustre colours is stunningly captured and makes you feel suitably cold and trapped in their detached, dirty world. There are some very occasional signs of a slightly dirty print but they’re hardly noticeable and there are no problems with compression whatsoever.
The soundtrack is one of extremes, going from eerie silence to window rattling bass vibrations in the space of a few beats. Such effects are sparsely used, but this makes them all the more effective, with a rampant heartbeat being able to hit you as hard as a gunshot.
Commentary from Director Joe Carnahan and Editor John Gilroy
Steering clear of common commentary hazards like simple on screen narration and over technical dryness Carnahan isn’t afraid to point out anything he sees as pitfalls or renounce claims of his genius by telling us which points he’s been praised on which were someone else’s doing or even totally accidental. His co-commentator is obviously a fan, implying all accidental genius was really subliminal, and the two get on stormingly, the editing process was clearly a very collaborative one and there are many stories to tell of long toiling nights. Carnahan frequently lifts proceedings pointing out such inane information as his additions to on set graffiti, and the joys of filming with a screaming baby, making sure the track remains suitably jovial.
The four documentaries on the disc are shot by DVD regular Laurent Bouzereau, and in keeping with his usual style are largely talking heads, and could so easily have been cut together into a single piece. They contain interviews with all the major players, and he even manages to gain some insight from Executive Producer Tom Cruise, who brought the film to Paramount after seeing it at the Sundance film festival.
Narc: Making the Deal
This first documentary looks at preproduction aspects of the film, though filmed well after its completion, from the original short college script Carnahan dusted and beat into shape to form Narc as well as how the starring roles were envisaged and filled.
Narc: Shooting Up
Narc was not an easy film to get made, it took more than a year to secure funding after Liotta signed up, and even then the financial troubles weren’t over. This part of the documentary focuses on the shooting of the film, covering such difficulties as realising the loans hadn’t arrived 6 days into filming, how difficult it is to keep a crew working when they haven’t been paid, and are starting to realise they may never be, as well as Carnahan talking about how such independent filmmaking has its advantages when it comes to translating your vision to the screen.
Narc: The Visual Trip
Here Carnahan talks about the look of the film, and the decisions he made in both filming style and framing. Sadly nearly everything covered here is almost word for word his thoughts from the films commentary on these scenes, and is hardly worth a look if you’ve listened to that.
The Friedkin Connection
This 10 minute interview sees William Friedkin discussing his appreciation of the film and the similarities, or lack of, with The French Connection. Friedkin’s wife is head of Paramount Pictures, and she presented him with a copy of the film well before its release, and he became an instant fan. He seems to see less parallels with his own work than most critics have but he’s very talkative about where he sees the differences lying, and very clear about his feelings on Carnahan, comparing him with the cream of 70s talent.
This trailer was clearly produced by Paramount, as it carries all the glitz of a big studio production, and manages to give away large chunks of the plot. Hooray for studio backing.
Narc is one of those ‘they don’t make ‘em like this anymore’ movies, evoking happy memories of classics past. Don’t be fooled though, Narc is as hard and gritty as any of its contemporaries, if not more so, and it arrives on a disc that is more than worthy of its near classic status. It may not be the most original movie to hit screens of late, but then more than a decade ago, another first time writer/director - Quentin Tarantino - shot a little film by the name of Reservoir Dogs. That was one of the least original movies ever made, with ideas stolen from a huge, and hugely eclectic, number of sources, but you’ll still find it riding high in any ‘greatest film’ list. Narc isn’t that good, but its damn close, and an amazingly impressive debut.