Joe Carnahan has had an interesting career to this point. His attempts at commercial success, The A-Team and Smokin' Aces, are decidedly flat and uninspired. However, when Carnahan departs from crowd-pleasing action fare, he shines more than any modern action director. Just this year he released The Grey, which remains in my top ten still. One of his earlier films was Narc, a small police thriller which floated under the radar of audience reception while garnering critical acclaim. All of the acclaim it deserves, and the lack of box office impact is a drawback only the simple-minded cinephile would acknowledge. Some of the best films of all time never brought in the big bucks, which is fine. Not that Narc belongs on the greatest of all time lists, but as a crime drama it is an uncompromising and intense thriller on par with some of the best in the genre.
It makes sense, then, that one of the more under-used actors in the last twenty five years is the star of Narc. Jason Patric plays Nick Tellis, an undercover Detroit poileman hanging on to his sanity by the thinnest of threads. The intensity and the danger of the job is ruining his life and his family. Like so many cinematic cops, Nick wants off the streets and wants "a desk." As the film opens, an undercover sting goes horribly awry and a pregnant woman winds up dead. Nick takes the heat for the murder and is suspended from the force. Of course, a murder investigation draws him back into the frey. Another undercover cop is murdered, and his cop friend, Henry (Ray Liotta) may or may not be a suspect in the murder. Internal Affairs is leaning on Henry and implores Nick to make a collar in the case.
Naturally, the opposing objectives of these two cops cross paths as they dive deeper into the criminal underworld of a snowbound Detroit winter. But the meat of the story involves Nick and Henry working their way through the murder case and crossing paths with some of the lowest forms of criminal life in the metropoliltan area. There are a number of grimy and unsettling scenes, including a dead body rotting in a bathtub and a drug addict who begs the officers to take one last hit before he cooperates for their investigation.
Narc is also an effective mystery at its core, as Nick desperately needs a conviction to save his own soul while Henry defends his own actions in the murder of his friend, the policeman. Shot in cold blues and greys, Narc is a dark and brooding picture that is firm in its atmosphere, a sort of heightened realism which accentuates the evil in the streets of Detroit while remaining true to the characters involved. Patric is all smoldering intensity and angst as Nick fights an uphill battle of the world he embodies. I don't think Jason Patric has ever been appropriately recognized as an intense actor. He seems bland and appears dry, but in the right role - especially here in Narc and in Rush - Patric can convey burning desire and intensity with some of the best. Liotta, who can sometimes pick curious roles beneath his talent, slides into the role as Henry, the most interesting character in the film. Is he bad? Is he guilty? There is a monologue near the middle of the film where the audience is expected to both sympathize and recoil from Henry. The lines may not be that clear, and the way Liotta handles the ambiguity of the role is nothing short of amazing.
There are startling outbursts of violence, and the grittiness in which they are displayed hammer in the look and the feel of the film. But there are real moments of emotion behind this story. Henry was the murdered cop's friend, Nick just wants a way to a better life. Narc is not necessarily an easy film to watch at times, as the hardcore nature of the events and the violence accentuate the darkness these policemen inhabit. But it is nevertheless a brilliant police drama. And it is a testament to what Carnahan can do when he is inside the right material.