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Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Copping some '70s-style reality


Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Joe Carnahan
Running time: *** minutes
Language: English
Opens May 24

Joe Carnahan's "Narc" certainly looks like a '70s film, with its grainy textures and its grungey, unglamorous view of undercover cops working Detroit's mean streets. Jason Patric's scruffy narc, with his wool cap and droopy mustache, echoes Al Pacino's "Serpico," while the opening sequence of "Narc" -- a frenetic chase captured through some athletic handicam moves -- is pure "French Connection."

News photo
Ray Liotta and Jason Patric in "Narc"

But more than the look, "Narc" also feels like a '70s film. It's got that inherent mistrust of authority -- especially father figures -- that marked the New Cinema of the '70s, along with a preoccupation with urban decay, complex moral dilemmas, and heroes who often seemed at the mercy of higher forces. (See everything from "Chinatown" to "Blue Collar.")

Patric, with his wounded 1,000-yard-stare, looks more like a shell-shocked 'Nam vet than the kind of ubercops who've largely populated cinema since the '80s. The film quickly establishes him as the kind of antihero whose liabilities and psychological damage may well outweigh his assets.

Patric's cop, Nick Tellis, is a man in search of redemption: We find him in early retirement, having turned in his badge after accidentally shooting a bystander while trying to save a little girl from a knife-wielding drug dealer (a truly harrowing scene). His superiors on the force want him back -- to use his street contacts to help solve the brutal murder of another young undercover cop, Calvess. Tellis looks at photos of the murdered Calvess, and then at photos of the guy with his young wife and kid, and he can't help thinking it could have been him.

This thought drives Tellis to take the case, but also makes him wary of it. His own wife, Audrey (Krista Bridges), has been through hell with him once, and isn't eager to risk doing it again. "Why don't you just do something else?" she implores. "What would that be?" replies Tellis. Like so many driven, risk-addicted males in crime and cop flicks, it's not that Tellis can't do something else, it's that he doesn't want to.

Reopening the investigation, Tellis joins forces with Oak (Ray Liotta), Calvess' former partner, who may or may not know more about the murder than he's letting on. Oak is the kind of meat-fisted thug who doesn't bend the rules so much as bludgeon them; a loose cannon whose fits of manic rage are no bad-cop trick -- like Pacino in "Heat" -- but real, rabid and dangerously out of control.

Director Carnahan has a fondness for the seediest aspects of policing an urban cesspool -- the more hardcore, the better. Thus, Oak and Tellis encounter on their investigation a decomposing corpse in a bathtub and a crack addict with a diseased member who's set his skanky girlfriend on fire.

Carnahan's not above milking these situations for some black humor, though some viewers may raise an eyebrow at how his two white cops wade through human garbage largely portrayed as being black and Latino. Balancing that is an appropriately cynical view of police corruption, where the cops are doing the drugs they seize, selling firearms to dealers, and generally using their freedom off the leash as undercovers to run wild. In light of recent revelations regarding the LAPD's antidrug task force, this is indeed a timely reminder of human fallibility when entrusted with power.

"Narc" builds its suspense carefully, moving from one lead to the next, while constantly cutting back to the imagined murder of Calvess, giving us several possibilities as to what actually went down. The tension really builds when Tellis starts suspecting Oak of hiding something: are Oak's explosions of anger just rage over a lost partner? And are Tellis' doubts well-founded . . . or just paranoia?

On the plus side, Carnahan is a director who gives his leads room to act, and some emotionally charged material for them to work with. So, while Patric remains a cipher behind his bushy mustache, Liotta excels at unhinged fury -- and together they are a perfect fire-and-ice combo. The flip side of that is that Carnahan's a director for whom -- like his idol, Quentin Tarantino -- the holy grail of cinema is two guys yelling at each other until they're red in the face, preferably while brandishing weapons and uttering plenty of obscenities (a trait previously displayed in his wicked indie debut, "Blood, Guts and High Octane").

Let's just say that Carnahan hits his hardboiled nirvana here, but for his climax it seems he hit on no better idea than turning the volume up to "11" in an endless orgy of in-your-face, vein-bulging screaming. Sometimes more isn't better. Still, Carnahan's a skilled enough stylist and shaper of compelling characters (he wrote the script as well) that it's kind of sad that his big Hollywood break is going to be directing "Mission Impossible III" -- a project not likely to exercise his creative muscle.

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