Thursday, October 2, 2014


Joe Carnahan's career has ebbed and flowed from serious, heavy action dramas to outlandish, ultra-violent action satires, but when he is on his game there is hardly an action director that can match his intensity and skill.  His theatrical debut, Narc, is unmatched on a number of levels.  A police procedural on the surface, Narc dives into darker avenues of the streets and ends with a twist that compromises the morality that has been set throughout the film.  It is often a gruesome street film, empowered by its lead performances and a direction from Carnahan that refuses to look the other way.

The protagonist is Nick Tellis, an undercover narcotics officer played by the undervalued Jason Patric.  The opening scene, shot out of a cannon, features Tellis making a split decision and shooting a drug-addicted maniac who has taken a pregnant woman hostage.  One of his bullets strikes the woman, killing her and her unborn child along with the criminal.  As Tellis has fallen to drug addiction during his undercover work, he is suspended and sent home.  Fast forward roughly a year and another undercover officer is found murdered.  Tellis is brought on to investigate, given his street connections.  He is also teamed up with a known hothead detective, Henry Oak, played by a heavy and intimidating Ray Liotta.  But, when is Liotta not intimidating?

Tellis and Oak comb the streets to try and find the cop killer, which sends them into some of the dirtiest and most unseemly areas of an impoverished Detroit.  The characters are authentic, but the city itself is perhaps the most vital player.  Painted in desperate blues and grays, in the middle of a deathly winter, Detroit is unforgiving as these officers try and figure out what happened and who is responsible.  Oak and Tellis develop a pragmatic working relationship, and Tellis struggles to keep the short fuse of Oak under wraps as they interrogate drug dealers and work murder scenes.  Oak's short fuse is due in part to his significant relationship with the murdered officer.

Tellis begins to investigate the death on his own, and uncovers more and more curious details.  All the while, he must contend with his wife, who wants him to have a desk.  The investigation takes Tellis and Oak into a confrontation with two low-level gun and drug dealers and Oak's fury takes over.  The final reveal is delivered at the last minute, after an initial twist occurs.  From one twist to another, the morality play grows more convoluted all the way to the final shot.

Narc is the very definition of a gritty crime drama.  Carnahan pulls no punches with his portrayal of an intense police investigation and gruesome detail.  Ray Liotta's performance is worthy of an Oscar nomination, and Jason Patric shows that he is such an underused, under appreciated actor.  He has the depth and emotion in a simple stare that some of the finest actors are able to convey.  Both actors have a past to contend with in the picture, and I cannot think of better actors to display damage and sadness while soldiering on in the name of plot.

Joe Carnahan's direction is proof of his strong talent behind the camera.  After Narc, he would direct the gonzo action comedy Smokin' Aces and the poor adaptation of The A-Team.  But then he would return with a vengeance with The Grey, Liam Neeson's best film in a decade.  Regardless of his career trajectory, Narc is a searing and unforgettable start.