When working deep cover to bust the smack dealers of Detroit, Tellis (Jason Patric) finds himself chasing a pusher who is randomly injecting those who get in his way. When a toddler is picked up as a human shield, Tellis opens fire. He is not the best shot, and a cocktail of adrenaline and junk in his veins are diminishing his concentration. He fucks up.
Then after a year and a half at home with his family spent getting clean and enduring a regular grilling from Internal Affairs, he is offered a glimmer of hope, an assignment with the possibility of a desk job. Yet the offer is a double-edged sword. He must go on active street duty and partner up with the key suspect in a cop killing, the formidable Detective Lieutenant Henry Oak (Ray Liotta).
Narc scrambles onto the screen with one of the most exciting set pieces ever arrested on celluloid. The initial chase rumbles along on foot with all the prowess of Bigelow’s standout Steadicam sequence in Point Break (1991). A chilling, relentless sole to concrete race where we are as scared of Tellis’ ineptitude and current manic state as much as we are of the remorseless crim he is tracking. This is the kind of attention grabbing action that has been absent from the screens for too many years. The closest we have got to such a man against man battle is Behind the Sun’s (2001) opening dash/shoot out through the brittle branches. Narc’s first three minutes are worth the admission price alone. And the rest of it, though incomparable, is not at all sloppy either.
Narc is a bit of a guilty pleasure. The nineties’ favouring of gangster chic has seen the police procedural sub-genre pretty much go to seed. Director Joe Carnahan brings very little that is new to the plate except an obvious respect for Friedkin and Kurosawa. Disparate influences to be sure, yet he is also a pupil of the Tarantino school filmmaking as his previous Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane (1998) stands testament to. His obvious awe of Mr Brown allows him to combine seemingly incompatible reference points into an acceptable synthesis. The elliptical nature of the film is another give-away of the Tarantino effect but one suspects that Carnahan would like to move away from the shadow of the cat he likes to copy. His characters are more fleshed out and the script has almost certainly been rejigged in some draft so that a 45-minute warehouse sequence is no longer a time jumping framing device. Congratulations to the young Turk for realising that Quentin’s favoured time framing is neither necessary nor appropriate for every dialogue heavy crime flick. The reason, however, that the script rejig is so noticeable is that after the economic first half, the second stint drags, too stagy and oppressive after those wonderful adrenaline bursts and punchy conversations.
Special mention should go to the performances. There are two great turns and one mind blowing one. Relative newcomer Krista Bridges brings likeability to the role of concerned wife that other actresses tend to play with a distracting shrewishness. In a more high profile film such a performance would mark her out as a name to watch. It is a shame for Bridges that the film is most likely to work as a career resurrection for Jason Patric or Ray Liotta. Patric is the brooding presence he intermittently gets to be but brings a lot more humanity than his previous starring roles have shown. Liotta is truly fantastic. This is the best performance from a US actor in a long old stretch. It has been almost 15 years since GoodFellas (1990) and he, and we, must be kicking ourselves that he has not received a part as meaty and as tasty as this before. He shines. Bear-like and broken, but with a real spark. Ray, why have you wasted all these years?