Good cop, bad cop
By Rachel Deahl
In the opening sequence of director Joe Carnahan’s new crime drama, Narc, Jason Patric’s rogue cop goes tearing through a city street in pursuit of a fleeing perpetrator. Opting to take out the target (even though he’s grabbed a young hostage), the unwieldy detective shoots and hits his mark. But, making the victory more than a little bittersweet is the fact that he also takes down a pregnant bystander, sending her to the ground in a pool of blood. Shot with jumpy hand-held camerawork that would make the crew from The Blair Witch Project queasy, the scene unfolds at a disorienting, hectic pace. And, although this bombshell opener is undoubtedly the best part of Carnahan’s formulaic thriller, the green director manages to make good on the basic elements of the genre, drawing two fine performances from his leads.
Made on a shoestring budget, Narc was discovered at Sundance last year and found a major distributor in Paramount. Carnahan, who created a buzz (and a slight cult following) with his 1998 indie, Blood, Guts and Octane, works off his strong script to infuse his sophomore effort with enough subtlety to make it work.
Patric stars as fallen narcotics officer, Nick Tellis. Released from the force after his brash, dangerous takedown in the opening scene, we’re next introduced to him in at his home, cuddling with his infant son. Offered the chance to investigate the homicide of another undercover cop, Tellis reluctantly joins the force once again, much to the dismay of his wife. With his past, Tellis’ wife knows all too well the dangers of a job that already ruined her husband once. But, drawn to the victim (who was also a young narcotics officer with a family), Tellis becomes obsessed with the idea that he can somehow redeem himself by solving the case.
Paired with the victim’s former partner, Henry Oak (Ray Liotta), Tellis finds himself in the hands of a self-proclaimed vigilante who will stop at nothing to find the killers. Unafraid of acting like a criminal to catch a criminal, Oak’s gruff, blue collar, veteran willfully pulls Tellis along as he investigates the case with his own vendetta writ large. Of course as Tellis digs, his focus turns to Oak as he begins to question his new partner’s complicity in the crime.
The reigning theme of Narc is the way in which the line between the lawmaker and the lawbreakers is constantly blurred in the pursuit of “justice.” Of course this idea is nothing new and, while an episode of NYPD Blue or Law & Order might finally deliver the same message about how the “good” guys aren’t always so benevolent, Narc works its tale of dirty cops well. But, at its best, the film reveals the internal struggle that Patric’s conflicted cop endures. When Patric’s character is at home, holding his baby and arguing with his wife, attempting to cling to some shred of domestic bliss, the real tragedy of the film is driven home: like the guys he’s chasing, Tellis has no other, better, way to make a living. It’s in these tender and, at times, heartbreaking moments that a little-seen brutality of the crime business comes through.