How do you make a good cop movie these days when so many already exist? Apparently, if you are director Joe Carnahan, you spend years thinking about the screenplay, you get two solid actors to give you extraordinary performances and then you invest a lot of time in the editing room. His hard work pays off and, if you like the genre and have a high tolerance for on-screen brutality, then you are in for a treat. If it does not transcend its genre, at least is is a solid example of why that genre endures.
This movie is very bloody and violent with an adrenaline-pumping opening sequence that evokes the unblinking carnage of the beach scene from “Saving Private Ryan.” From the first jolting shots of the hand-held camera following the escaping drug dealer in his sprint for freedom, you know that there will be no day-saving heroics and that the protagonists are as scarred as a junkie’s arm.
While the plot might seem familiar -– an undercover narcotics officer is slain and two detectives are assigned to find the murderers -— the acting of the main characters and the tart flippancy of the dialogue brings a freshness to the story. Against the backdrop of Detroit’s industrial rot, the film (actually shot in Toronto) follows narcotics officer Nick Tellis (Jason Patric) as he is reluctantly partnered with Henry Oak (Ray Liotta) to find who killed Oak’s former partner.
A striking counterpart to the claustrophobic inside scenes, the sprawling urban lots are shot in all their cold and grainy ugliness by cinematographer Alex Nepomniaschy (“The Score”). The movie radiates an intense realism from the landscapes to the equally cold emotional terrain. That there are no angels here is almost a relief. Patric’s Tellis gives off a cold intelligence and seeming indifference as he wrestles with his internal monsters, including his own former drug addiction. The rest of the world retreats as he gets wrapped up in a mystery which allows him not to confront his reawakening hungers or the frustration of his wife (Krista Bridges).
Tellis’ repressed electricity provides a good counterpoint to Liotta’s plodding Oak, who emanates a protective paternalism for his partner(s) and their families. Oak, as solid as his name, is blankly brutal toward anyone who stands in his way and clearly does not trust his superiors who sway to the political pressure to pin the crime on a white suspect. Suspects Beery (Busta Rhymes) and Steeds (Richard Chevolleau) are brutally beaten as he seeks something more than retribution.
Fans of this genre will find that “Narc” provides a tightly edited, intense story with good dialogue and standout performances by both Patric and Liotta.
Parents should know that this movie is a very strong R and is not for any but the most mature of teens. The violence, drug use and non-stop coarse language are enough to make the most jaded of audiences flinch.
Families should discuss whether the end ever justifies the means. Each character here has a very different idea of what “justice” means, however, they will go to great personal lengths and endanger themselves (and others) in order to pursue what they see as the necessary course of action. What do you think will happen to Tellis at the end? What are the consequences of his actions?
Parents should also discuss the dangers of drug use even if the user wears a police officer’s badge. Drug addiction here leads to violence, broken homes, destruction and death, with little glorification but great prevalence. A former detective for the NYPD, Todd Merritt, advised on this movie and says that it raises many issues that undercover agents must face. For those officers who pursue drug dealers, becoming an addict, he says, is an occupational hazard. What does this mean for the pursuit of justice?
“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. When you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” These words from German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche pertain to the results of living on the edge. Each of these characters are wrestling with their own internal monsters with varying levels of success. What monsters do Tellis and Oak face? What does it mean when Oak says “I became a much better cop the day (my wife) died”?
Powerful movies about the fine line between those who would enforce the law and those who would break it are legion. Families who wish to watch Jason Patric in another mesmerizing performance as a drug addicted undercover agent might consider renting “Rush” (1991), which takes place in Texas (not Detroit) during the ‘70’s. Denzel Washington’s shining performance in the otherwise murky “Training Day” (2001) offers another take on the theme. A master at playing ambiguously legal police officers and the criminals they pursue, Al Pacino offers noteworthy performances in three decades of cop/criminal movies, including “Serpico” (1973), considered by many the gold standard of police internal investigation; “Donnie Brasco” (1997), “Heat” (1995); and “Insomnia” (2002). The underrated “Internal Affairs” has mesmerizing performances by Richard Gere and Andy Garcia. Finally, Lawrence Fishburne in “Deep Cover” (1992) gave a memorable performance as an undercover agent who, in realizing his own natural talents as a drug dealer, must become a monster to battle with them.