Narc is a high-stress, high-octane cop drama. It is full of clichés, but its aggressive, unrelenting energy more than makes up for them.
Solving The Crime
R for violence, drugs, language
Oak (Ray Liotta) has just lost his partner to a murder. Tellis (Jason Patric) is assigned to help Oak with the investigation.
Tellis goes by the book, while Oak is a loose cannon. Think of Ethan Hawke and Denzel Washington in Training Day and you’ll have an idea of their relationship. Together they go through the motions of solving the crime — one witness leads to another — and in-between, Oak and Tellis share stories from their years on the force. They become friends in spite of their differences in philosophy and tactics.
Eventually they reach the final suspects, a trio of street thugs (unfortunate African-American stereotypes). The thugs swear that Oak killed his partner. To Tellis, their story sounds pretty plausible, plus Oak seems to be hiding something.
Eventually Tellis and Oak must have a final confrontation. Either Oak will have to explain himself, or he’ll have to kill Tellis and frame the hoods.
Narc is riddled with cop-movie clichés. Oak is the trigger-happy partner for whom this investigation is personal. He flips through happy “candid” family photos of the deceased. Instead of “funeral” he says “a wreath and a rifle salute.” Speaking to Tellis in the café, even the cinematography — from above the ceiling fan, from outside the window — is clichéd enough to have been parodied on The Simpsons eight years ago.
But the filmmakers approach the story as though there aren’t any clichés. The film doesn’t apologize for, nor even seem to acknowledge, that it’s a rehash of every cop movie that has gone before. It just moves forward with a full head of steam, unselfconscious.
Rather than try a new twist, Beginner director Joe Carnahan cares about getting the details right. Interrogating a string of witnesses could be a tedious necessity in a cop movie, but Carnahan bothers to flesh out these minor characters. Maybe they end up a little exaggerated, but at least they are larger than life, rather than two-dimensional.
One such informant has “crotch rot” and smokes something strong and illegal for the burning pain, cursing his “bitch” all the while. He won’t talk to Oak and Tellis unless they let him have a toke or two. They relent, amused and moved by the bold, pathetic plea. At the end of the scene, the perp tosses off an unimportant line — “I love that woman” — which nevertheless adds a smile, a chuckle, and a dash of color to the formulaic drama.
The Smoking Gun
Liotta throws himself into the role, playing the crazed, renegade cop wholeheartedly. For example, Oak and Tellis come upon the corpse of a suspect who used his rifle as a bong. The user was too loaded to notice that the rifle was too. In this gruesome, dirty bathroom with a stinking, rotting corpse, Liotta starts laughing with a disturbing mixture of hilarity and cruelty, showing perhaps what he learned working with Joe Pesci on Goodfellas. It’s a great performance, and genuinely scary. One hopes never to meet someone like Oak in the course of daily life.
Patric on the other hand is the straight man. He’s just there for contrast with Liotta’s Oscar-begging performance. Patric does a fine job, although he is unmemorable, especially in comparison.
Thank Goodness It’s Over
There are no clean-cut heroes in Narc. Tellis looks pretty good compared to the borderline-psychotic Oak, but even he is not pure. It wouldn’t matter anyway, because the movie never presents “good” as a choice, only “the lesser of evils,” in its murky moral landscape.
Add a dash of violence and brisk pace, and you have a movie that leaves you sweating, exhausted and dirty when it’s over. Clearly, this is not a movie I’d recommend to my parents or to my nieces and nephews. But to my friends who appreciate film’s power to bypass your brain and affect you viscerally, who equate horror movies with carnival rides, Narc is ride worth taking.