Jason Patric, left, and Ray Liotta play tightly wound officers.
Narc is the second big movie of the past year to be shot among the artfully crumbling ruins of crack houses and industrial decay and potholes that is Detroit Rock City. 8 Mile, of course, was the first, and the more high-profile film. It's also the more authentic one, all the way around. The two movies have virtually nothing in common but a location, and yet how these two films use their backdrop is telling.
8 Mile shot entirely on location in Detroit, and finds a stark beauty in its landscape that relates to its story. Narc filmed a bit on Woodward Avenue, just north of downtown off I-75, to add a touch of local flavor; but for the most part, the film was shot around Toronto, and it's a product not of genuine grit and inspiration, but of director Joe Carnahan's having grown up with '70s cop movies.
Still, I can't help but sit right on the fence about this one. Maybe because I also have fond memories of Al Pacino going over the top in Serpico, frustrated and slamming a chair in place, while the precinct looks on; or Gene Hackman in The French Connection, grinding his teeth along with his moral ambiguity. The shaggy, beat-up spirit of Sidney Lumet, director of Serpico, and recent '70's-ish cop flicks like Q&A with Nick Nolte, hang over Narc. But more like a noose than a badge. In other words: Oh boy, is this a cop movie. No amount of jump edits, split-screens, blasts of white light, or shaky camera work, all direct from the independent cinema of the '90s, can smother the evidence.
Here's what goes down: Corruption, redemption, a long-suffering wife, quiet scenes where the good, but stressed, cop shows his tender side by playing with his kid, shotguns, kicked-in doors, stakeouts in the rain, police chiefs who scream, loose-cannon cops, cups of coffee, goatees, lots of cop lingo like “solid collars make solid cases,” and many speeches where people explain why they either: a.) became a cop in the first place, or b.) started as a good cop but discovered they have to be a bad cop to survive.
And yet you can't dismiss Narc. It's solid and believable, comfy even; I just felt like I'd seen it already, if not a zillion times in theaters, then in the best episodes of Homicide: Life on the Streets or NYPD Blue.
Jason Patric is an actor with piercing eyes who is perpetually about to become a movie star. He brings a sleepiness to Nick Tellis, a tightly coiled Detroit narcotics officer who seems to draw the ire of people by just standing beside them. The film's best scene is its first. Carnahan's camera hits the ground running behind Tellis, hot on the heels of some nut job. We hear the huffs and puffs and screams, and we don't know what's what or who's who, but soon there's a lot of brutal bloodletting, and a pregnant woman is shot.
Nick shot her, accidentally, and we soon learn he's been suspended from the force. But in the great cop movie tradition of going back into the field for Just One More Case, Nick is not out, oh, no, no, no. He is pumped for his contacts and asked to assist officer Henry Oak (Ray Liotta), whose partner was just murdered. Nick agrees to help, if the chief will finally give him a quiet desk job.
But really Nick is looking for redemption, and the movie becomes the familiar back-and-forth over the morality of street justice versus getting things done fairly. Street justice is represented by Oak, a lumbering hulk who poses the film with its central mystery, and it's not who killed his partner, but this:
Just exactly how out-of-control is Oak? Answer: He is played by Liotta, who has spent a career specializing in men pulled tighter than piano wire. It's not much of a question. But then everything about Narc is obvious, everything but the energy Carnahan brings. He has the spunk of a filmmaker juiced to prove himself, even if a little too ready to obscure familiar material with film-school gimmicks for their own sake, and a little too anxious to look authentic. How else could you explain a brief shot of Nick interviewing a witness in an empty Tiger Stadium? This is the only place in Detroit that's deserted?
Last year when I was at the Sundance Film Festival Narc didn't excite anyone. But Tom Cruise saw it, signed on as executive producer; flash forward a year and the movie gets a nice Oscar-friendly release date. Maybe he's like the rest of us, a sucker for '70s-brand grit. Or more probably, Cruise spotted something beyond Carnahan's self-conscious jitteriness, a much rarer talent for letting stories soak in ambiguity. That, a little luck, and a cup of coffee, could land you too a distribution deal with Paramount.