On the surface “Narc” looks like just another cop film about two officers trying to solve a murder, but deep within the surface of the story and concept, this is really a tragedy, a heartbreaking tragedy about two men with demons they can’t escape. Both are a paradox; One officer, is a man who has everything to live for, he’s a family man, the other has nothing to live for, no life, but a great job, the only thing that really links them is their past and the determination to solve a murder and redeem their sins. In the climactic police raid, Patric and Liotta’s character present the paradox to the audience; Officer Nick Tellis (Patric) slips on a bullet proof vest, and protection and carefully slithers his way into the building, while Officer Henry Oak (Liotta) charges into the building like an adrenaline filled bull with a shotgun and walks in shooting without a moments hesitation.
The cast is very small, only two actors who control the film, but then who cares? Two is really all we need, anyway. Liotta and Patric handle the job perfectly and their chemistry, their opposite attitudes are so powerful, so amazing that more than two is just unnecessary. Sure, we’ve seen the formula a million times of two completely different officers, opposite in personality teamed together to fight crime, but it’s done so differently here, what writer and director Joe Carnahan does is take an old product and recycle it into something completely new and different. This low-budget thriller that never got a lot of attention in theaters is crucially overlooked; the best films are always overlooked and “Narc” deserves more attention than it received.
Relying solely on its two leads, the minimal cast creates an incredible chemistry with one another on-screen. Though I’ll admit I was weary and skeptical about how this would turn out, I was proven wrong and ended up quite surprised at the quality director Carnahan brings to his film. In many cases a low-budget on a film can increase the quality of the storytelling and star performances because the director isn’t relying on many but must instead focus on bringing about a good film, and boy is this ever a good film. Ex-officer Nick Tellis retired early from the force after a drug sting went bad killing a passerby and a pregnant woman’s unborn baby. He was high at the time and unfocused, but he’s long left the career behind and that incident continues to haunt him even after he’s been married with a child and long over his addiction that basically became the downfall of his career.
He’s called back into the department by the big dogs who go over his case, but instantly he catches on to them and refuses to plead his case again, but discovers they have ulterior motives. Captain Mitch Cheevers, played by Chi McBride in a very small appearance, pleads to him to come back and specially assigns him to a case where he must team with another officer to investigate the mysterious death of Mike Calvess (Alan Van Sprang) who was killed in a tunnel after a botched drug sting, but whose case was mysteriously closed years before. Tellis must team with a psychotic rather loose cannon officer, Henry Oak whose first appearance is comprised of he stuffing a cue ball into a sock and beating a prisoner with it as officers hold him back. Tellis who has everything going for him must be confronted with a man who doesn’t care, he doesn’t care about being killed, shot, or stabbed, and he admits that he will break every rule possible if it means bringing down a suspect, so in the end it’s a question of does the end justify the means.
Is breaking rules the best possible way to stop a criminal, or is following the rules the best possible way? It’s never really answered. The story is swiftly and humbly directed by Carnahan who creates a grim and bleak but well done crime thriller. The pacing is slow and fast almost simultaneously though there are only very few action sequences. This isn’t an action film, it’s a drama about real characters who interact in very realistic situations. Patric and Liotta are excellent in their roles and manage to inhabit their characters and play them with much gusto and much enthusiasm looking like they’re having fun with their characters. Patric whom I’ve always enjoyed in films like “Sleepers” and one of my favorite horror films “The Lost Boys” is perfect as the lead, the conflicted and very tortured Nick Tellis whose life was ruined by the job.
His life is in ruins but he grasps onto the remaining shambles very carefully, his wife and his child whom he cherishes appropriately are always at the brink of slipping out of his fingers, and it’s clearly obvious as we watch his relationship between he and his wife, the house is rarely ever happy and there always seems to be this tension, and even years after his last horrible drug bust, he continues to beat himself up about, Liotta’s character Henry Oak is clearly psychotic and doesn’t care about anything, has no limits and just charges every situation without a thoughts notice to how it will affect anyone. He speaks freely, yells a lot, walks into wherever he pleases, and breaks rules and regulations because he knows that following rules won’t catch the suspect or the murderer that murdered his partner, so he’s so intent on catching the person he will sacrifice his own life in the process.
Liotta is as excellent as he always is in this role, gaining pounds and wearing a fat suit to play a worn down, weathered, and cynical officer whose seen it all is one of the high points of this film. He plays off well against Patric and never goes over the top in his performance. His dialogue is believable and his strut and swagger is practically that of an officer whose been around the block more time than he can count. It’s not the criminals that risk the two officers lives, it’s the officers, one who is so suicidal that he walks right into gunfire, and the other so afraid of failing he walks right into danger, the two are on pins and needles and know that, but they’re determined to tolerate one another at all costs, even if it means sacrificing their families.
Believe it or not the story is rather intricate and very unique as we go through many twists in a sort of “Rashomon” theme that is never contrived or cliché but the themes of the story are clearly resonant and develops some rather shocking plot twists. By the closer of the film, it’s clear that the officers, and the characters we think we know aren’t the people we think they are, Carnahan pulls us in with these real, and incredibly complex characters and shocking intense opening and sticks it to us with a story that isn’t what we expect. Ultimately, this is a bleak look at the career implying that often times the job as officer ruins a man, it ruins their life, especially undercover work which becomes their downfall and sometimes the officers become addicted to drugs and end up having no control over their addiction and their life. This implies that becoming an officer doesn’t improve one’s family life, it doesn’t improve their sanity, it only makes it worse and in the process the police department take everything away intentionally and unintentionally.
By helping others, these officers sacrifice their own lives and many never come out of it unscathed. By the climax we wonder if there is a real winner, and if there really is a happy ending or not. “Narc” isn’t anything we haven’t seen before, let me just say that. The premise has been seen over and over and over, and I was a bit weary approaching this film because the plot is so re-hashed from previous films with a young cop with a shattered past still fighting his personal demons teaming with a rather psychotic police officer, and they form an uneasy bond. I was expecting Ray Liotta to say “I’m too old for this shit” at any moment.
While the plot is re-hashed the final scenes in the movie don’t make for very dramatic material and seems to go about the situations rather ordinarily, even considering the final moments in which we learn what really happened to the murdered officer, and despite that, it’s never really exciting. This has many points to become exciting and adrenaline-filled. Despite being a police drama, a little excitement wouldn’t have ruined what was happening at the moment. The character driven script will turn some people off to this, especially those expecting a hard action film within the lines of “Training Day”, but “Training Day” this is not. This is a whole other ballpark, folks. Though the formula and the characters are recycled, this is possibly one of the best films of 2002 with excellent performances by Ray Liotta, Jason Patric, and with well done directing and a great screenplay by Joe Carnahan.