If you thought Ray Liotta was good in Goodfellas, then you’re in for an even better treat in Joe Carnahan’s Narc. He’s brilliant as the self-righteous and impetuous Lieutenant Oak, who we first see wrapping a pool ball in a sock and whacking a detainee’s face in the middle of the police station. Oak’s ex partner, Calvess, was murdered sometime ago and there’s still no conviction; the case re-opens and and a determined (and slightly-obsessed) Oak is given the opportunity to use his brutal methods in bringing down the people responsible for the crime.
An intelligent, young narcotics office named Nick Tellis (Jason Patric — in an equally engrossing performance) is called to the case, but is already facing some tough scrutiny. The film opens with him accidentally shooting a pregnant lady in pursuit of a drug dealer, which leads to him being confronted by a provocative assessment panel. He is given an ultimatium: full reinstatement in the police force, if he assists Lieutenant Oak with bringing the Calvess killer to justice.
Narc dares to build slowly, and the tension amounts to greater heights as we are drawn in deeper to Detroit’s grungy, criminal underworld as the case goes on. Gradually, Oak and Tellis develop a mutual respect for one another through their “no-nonsense” style of detective work. Though they have conflicting personalities, there is a particularly inviting conversation between the two during a stakeout, which sees Oak talk about losing his wife to cancer, as well as violently confronting a child groomer.
“I became a much better cop the day she died,” says Oak, in an attempt to describe his motives for being excessively violent towards criminals. Carnahan’s dialogue is intelligent and provides a stronge foundation for the actors to work with; while his camera confidently pans around the car from the outside during this particular scene, allowing us to witness a fascinating, developing bond between the two main people involved.
What’s particularly appealing to me is how the film is critical of the politics behind the justice system, and how desperate cops/non-cops become when they’re pushed. Narc unveils a harsh and violent world of corruption and an any-means-necessary style of getting things done. The Oak and Tellis characters appear flawed, but appear to be battling against a system that wants to see results, rather than actual facts. Narc is ultimately a character-driven movie, tapping into the wider sociological and psychological issues of working for and against the system.
As well as some intriguing dialogue about race, hierarchy and the concept of “justice” within the police department, Narc even contains some dark, genuinely funny moments to add to the appeal. One suspect contracts an STD from his girlfriend and asks the interviewing cops for a “hit” to limit his itching; while another drug user is believed to have blown his head off after smoking cannabis via a shotgun in the bath.
Flashy, indie-style visuals are also used to heighten the interest during Oak and Tellis’ unravelling of the case: awash with dark blues and greys, the film’s palette becomes a reflection of the emotional conflict ongoing within the minds of characters present. The cinematography is also gritty and realistic, making the story convincing and ultimately satisfying.
I have to give credit to those involved in Narc’s sound effects and score: when punches are thrown, they really feel as if they’re connecting; when bullets are fired, the skin is heard tearing upon impact. Every moment of conflict is made even more intriguing thanks to the astonishing depictions of violence; as well as the Hip-Hop beats that contribute to the tense atmosphere surrounding the characters involved.
I have watched Narc in full on quite a few occasions now, and I have to say writer-director Carnahan deserves some serious credit for this impressively-brutal and realistic slice of cop-criminal drama. Narc doesn’t break new ground, some may argue, but it does inject a huge amount of suspense into the genre right from the brilliant opening chase scene through to the long, thirty-minute climax that gets better the more it goes on. Liotta and Patric’s characters appear very complex on the strength of the script and their powerful performances really bring the story to life.