“Video killed the radio star” is how The Buggles welcomed in MTV’s music revolution, but it could also be applied to the cinema as well: video killed the genre film. Thirty years ago movies weren’t afraid to be small. Now, if anything is less than epic or doesn’t feature a $20 million marquee idol it’s automatically labeled an “art-house” film, a tough sell to the masses, and frequently it’s shipped off to home video or the newest step in the de-evolution of cinema, cable TV. Joe Carnahan’s Narc is exactly the kind of genre film that would seem appropriate on the small screen—gritty, violent and with a permanent chill that doesn’t invite an easy rapport with its questionable heroes. But the fact that it’s getting a theatrical release (with a push from Paramount) is cause for celebration, as it shames nearly every other action spectacular/thriller/wannabe tough-guy movie in recent memory. Carnahan’s only previous feature was the little-seen indie Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane, but Narc is definitive proof that he’s a talent to be reckoned with—he works with a rough-hewn classicism that recalls the tenacity and resilience of Hollywood in its glory days.
The film stars Jason Patric as Nick Tellis, a former narc who was booted from the force after accidentally shooting a pregnant woman during a bust. Called back in after 18 months, reinstatement is dangled over his head if he will explore the shooting of another narc who operated in the same territory. At first he only agrees to sift through a stack of reports, but it’s not long before the street beckons him back to active duty and he is united with the dead cop’s former partner Henry Oak (Ray Liotta, whose intense, muscular performance makes the character’s name all too literal). Narc is ultimately less interested in the whos and whys of their investigation than what it means to both men, singling out the personal facets of day-to-day police work. For Tellis, it’s a way to redeem his mistakes, even if it means leaving his wife and infant son crying at home. For Oak, a known hothead who’d just as soon shoot a suspect as arrest him, it’s a way of claiming vengeance—though he knows more about his partner’s death than he initially lets on, and vengeance is only a means to cover up his inability to cope with the blamelessness of the truth.
As stark and cold as its wintry Detroit backdrop (it’s somewhat disappointing to learn that the film was actually filmed in Toronto), Narc earns comparison to landmark ‘70s police thrillers like The French Connection and Serpico—films that had style and energy to spare but were more interested in pursuing the minds of their characters than creating elaborate action sequences. Violence is used as punctuation more than plot points—the breathtaking French Connection car chase is rivaled by a jaw-dropping foot chase at Narc‘s outset—and the film often strips away the bluster of Tellis and Oak’s investigation to hang back with them in pensive flashes of vulnerability most films forget about.
Liotta is destined for to be remembered for his daunting work here—he allows Oak’s imposing nature to run far deeper than a mere façade, but it is Patric who embodies the film’s soul. Quiet, tentative, but capable of meeting Oak toe to toe, it’s a remarkable piece of acting that suggests the unknowable state of turbulence and frustration that comes with investigating violent crimes. For all of the film’s edgy brawn, it’s a sign of Carnahan’s maturity as a filmmaker that he allows his main character such hushed moments of introspection. Narc comes up just shy of greatness (its lack of a solid conclusion leaves it hanging a bit too much), and its indie-scaled standards mean it may take a while for it to catch on—those looking for another dumb action movie will be left wanting. But it has the sort of tense grandeur that’s often a sign of enduring genre classics, and sooner or later it will get its due. The decisive irony, though, is that such dues will likely be paid as Narc gains its following on home video.