by Del Harvey
Powerhouse performances and strong story give “indie” film authenticity and energy lacking in many contemporary thrillers.
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An undercover narcotics officer is involved in a messy shooting which results in bad publicity for the Detroit P.D. Suspended, he is called back after 18 months and asked to try his hand at investigating the death of another undercover narcotics officer whom he did not know. He is paired with the slain officer’s partner, and they find themselves bound together in a crusade leading ever on to what appears to be a foregone conclusion.
Joe Carnahan’s Narc resounds with authenticity. He had the luxury of three police detectives advising on the film, and there are quite a few scenes which seem taken directly from the headlines of any newspaper in the nation. The characters play true to logic and are so genuine that you’d swear you could smell the cop or perpetrator about them. The surprise ending is also based upon the quirkiness of life’s twists and turns, and so rings true when it is finally revealed.
Our two main characters are Jason Patric (The Lost Boys, After Dark My Sweet) as undercover cop Nick Tellis, and Ray Liotta (Hannibal, Phoenix, Heartbreakers) as Detective Lieutenant Henry Oak. Both are superb in their roles and hold us captivated from start to finish. Patric’s low-key style lends itself perfectly to both the story and as a counterpart to the more volatile persona of Henry Oak. The nature of Tellis’ character is to question his own decisions, something which came about as a result of the gunplay in the opening scene and its disastrous consequences. At the same time, Tellis is driven to solve a mystery, to find the truth, and to bring it to light. Ray Liotta’s performance fairly shimmers with brilliance, he is that close to perfect in the role of Henry Oak. He plays an older, wiser, near-burnt out cop a few yards from the edge, but still bearing the soul of the honorable policeman and human being at his core.
These two turn in powerhouse performances which rank as some of the best of the year. It helps that they are supported by competent supporting cast, including quite recognizable Chi McBride (Undercover Brother, TV’s Boston Public) as police Captain Cheevers. Lesser-known but just as competent are the two actresses, Anne Openshaw as the slain cop’s wife, and Krista Bridges as Tellis’ long-suffering, loving, and just-a-little-frayed wife. And one of the “perps” is played by popular rap artist and blossoming actor Busta Rhymes, who has shown ability in the films Halloween: Resurrection and Shaft.
Director Carnahan, whose best work to date is probably The Ticker, one of those BMW Films featuring the excellent Clive Owen, serves up a taut and compelling police drama forged from the basic tenets of human weakness and compassion. His next feature is A Walk Among the Tombstones, adapted from a Lawrence Block novel, and starring Harrison Ford as his private eye character Matthew Scudder. Judging from Carnahan’s work here, we expect to see bigger and even better things in his future.
The soundtrack includes a lot of contemporary music, and the choice of the music was perfection, as it lends itself not only to the story, but infuses the film with an added texture, as if you could add an extra graininess to the celluloid itself.
According to producer Diane Nabotoff, production ran into trouble when the bank loan did not come through at the scheduled time. Rather than hold up production, she, director Carnahan, and actors Liotta and Patric deferred their salaries until the loan did come through. They worked through harsh winter weather in Toronto, up before dawn in temperatures sometimes below freezing. But the result is a film that looks, feels, and rings true. And with that quality there comes a freshness in performance and in the sheer drama of the story.
Narc will not be nominated for any Oscars, unless Liotta gets in for Best Actor, but it is that good that it should be nominated for several other categories. Released early for Academy consideration, the film opens wide early in 2003. When it does, do yourself a favor and see this film.
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly and lives in Chicago. He is a devout Bears fan, loves Grant Park in any season, and recently taught screenwriting at Columbia College Chicago.
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