Eighteen months ago, Detroit undercover narcotics cop Nick Tellis (Jason Patric) became unintentionally responsible for a sickeningly tragic accident when a bust went bad. For his actions, Tellis was suspended from the force for what would have been a heroic action had it not turned out the way it did. He has been haunted ever since by the kind of guilt from which no man could possibly recover.
Two months ago, undercover narcotics cop Michael Calvess took a bullet in the head while on duty. And suddenly the Detroit Police Department is interested in Nick Tellis again. Not because he had anything to do with it, but because the connections he built with the city’s drug element during his time as an undercover officer might be the only hope in finding the murdered cop’s killer.
If Tellis can bring the killer to justice, he’ll be reinstated as a police officer with the assignment of his choice. “I need a desk,” he asks desperately. The reply? “Get me a conviction and I’ll get you a desk.”
It’s a terrible decision to make. Police work is the only thing Tellis has ever known, and it’s all he’s ever wanted to do. He has a wife and a baby to support, and the pension he’s been receiving since his suspension can’t cut it much longer. There’s also an emotional connection: Michael Calvess left behind a wife and two young daughters. It could have been Nick Tellis who died that day, and for that reason Tellis feels even more responsible. There’s also the fact that Tellis knows, just as his superiors know, that he’s the best man for the job.
On the other hand, Tellis knows painfully well what undercover narcotics work can do to a man and his family. That’s the heart of his struggle; he knows he shouldn’t say yes to this deal for the very same reasons he knows he has to. His wife, Audrey (Krista Bridges), begs him to say no, but Tellis follows his gut right back to his badge.
Tellis won’t be alone in the investigation, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. His partner will be Henry Oak (Ray Liotta), an aptly named mountain of a homicide detective who’s already been kicked off the Calvess case because for use of excessive force. Calvess was his friend and Oak considers the murdered cop’s family his own. On paper he’s the perfect policeman — 93 percent conviction rate, zero hesitation in the line of duty and total dedication to the job. But, as Tellis is warned by a superior, Oak is also “all that shit a cop can’t be. Not in this city. Not right now.”
And so the fringe cop who’s fallen out of favor must partner with a dangerously violent detective to solve a case that’s important to each of them. The department hopes that Tellis’ intelligence and connections will help focus Oak’s rage into a successful solving of the case. The department will get its cop killer, Oak gets back on the case and Tellis might get the chance for redemption that his soul so desperately needs.
As the investigation progresses, Tellis finds himself in terrifying territory. Was Michael Calvess really the good cop everyone thought him to be? If not, just how much did Henry Oak know about it? And if he knew about it, could he even have been involved in it? It all builds to one final, shocking moment of clarity.
Actors dream of scripts like this one. It was written by the film’s director, Jim Carnahan, who got the idea from a documentary called The Thin Blue Line, about a Texas cop killed in the line of duty in 1976. Carnahan made a 30-minute short called Gun Point that would later evolve into the script for Narc.
The performances here are worth every bit of the buzz they’re receiving, primarily because Patric and Liotta are very giving to each other. Liotta gives Patric plenty to feel uncomfortable about, and Patric’s reactions are acted with subtle hesitations that allow Liotta to channel his aggressions in new directions (which often end up being right back at Patric).
Let’s break this down. First of all, Ray Liotta. Something Wild got him noticed in 1986, but 1991’s Goodfellas made the man a star. He’s got the looks and presence of a leading man, but also has an intensity that makes him unpredictable. He’s played his fair share of psychopaths, in films like Unlawful Entry and Turbulence. And he’s played his fair share of jerks, with notable supporting turns in recent films Hannibal and John Q. The key to his character in Narc is that, even though Henry Oak shares lots of characteristics with both psychopaths and jerks, he’s really neither. And as a result, Liotta gets to turn in a performance that’s entirely new for him without compromising an iota of his trademark intensity.
He does get help from the script. Henry Oak could have been the same borderline bad cop you’ve seen in dozens of other cop movies, but the script periodically and unpredictably gives us reasons why Oak treats his job the way he does. We’ve seen this type of character before, but the combination of Liotta’s acting and the script’s high regard for characters makes him an individual whom we can ultimately identify with, when otherwise he might have been just another hardboiled cop in just another hardboiled cop movie. As brutally intense as his performance here is, there’s a lot of heart — no matter how broken or twisted it might be — at its core.
And it’s not just what Liotta radiates from the inside. The actor packed on 30 pounds for the role, and has never looked rougher or more intimidating on film. And when you combine the physical power he wields in this movie with the limitless inner rage we all know he’s capable of, you get a Ray Liotta performance that will likely surpass his work in Goodfellas as the best of his career thus far.
Jason Patric is just as good, in an entirely different way than Liotta. Patric got the thankless job of replacing Keanu Reeves in the ill-fated Speed sequel Cruise Control, but is likely best known to genre fans as Michael in the ’87 vampire classic The Lost Boys. Those in the past who’ve dismissed Patric as a pretty boy obviously missed his dramatic turns in Sleepers, which co-starred Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Brad Pitt and Kevin Bacon and, more recently, writer/director Neil LaBute’s Your Friends and Neighbors. Like LaBute’s previous film In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors was a twisted morality tale about the evil that men do. Patric, who starred in the film with Aaron Eckhart, Catherine Keener, Amy Brenneman and Ben Stiller, won much critical acclaim for the role and even took home the Las Vegas Film Critics Society Award for best supporting actor. He might not have as lengthy a CV as Liotta’s, but going into Narc he certainly had the potential.
And from the first frame of the film to the last, Patric mesmerizes. Tellis is a tragic character, and in many ways it’s his movie. It’s not really the story of murdered cop Michael Calvess. It’s not the story of volatile detective Henry Oak. It’s the story of shattered cop Nick Tellis, and how this case and these events affect him. And because of this, Tellis becomes our emotional guide through the film. Patric is the perfect conduit.
We’re there with Tellis during the tragedy that devastated him. We share his uneasiness around Henry Oak; we don’t want him to accept the Calvess case but we also know that he ultimately must. Buried under thick, shaggy hair and a goatee, Patric doesn’t rely at all on his looks to sell this part. While Liotta’s intensity is a constant in the film, Patric wisely and skillfully resists unleashing any of his own … until he has to. The film’s most dramatic moments occur when Tellis forces Oak to see him as an equal, and Patric plays off Liotta in these moments with amazing precision. Tellis is a haunted man, and Patric shows us all sides of that in his complex execution of a very difficult role.
The script also gives Patric and Liotta a good variety of scenes that illustrate different aspects of their partnership. For some of the places Oak goes, Tellis has no choice but to follow. In other scenes, Tellis brings a very reluctant Oak around to a clearer way of thinking. One of the best scenes takes place in a car, as the two men discuss their wives and Liotta shows a very rare crack in Oak’s armor. We also see how Oak and Tellis are different kinds of cops. Tellis wears a bulletproof vest. Oak storms in shotgun blazing, with nothing but rage under his shirt and tie.
Supporting roles are also filled by capable actors. Krista Bridges, acclaimed for her dramatic work in 1992’s The Shower, plays Tellis’ wife, Audrey, with much warmth and concern. Audrey has seen what being an undercover narcotics officer has done to her husband, and she knows how painful the last 18 months have been for him. Now that they have a baby, she’s more afraid than ever of the work her husband has to do to bring down the bad guys. Chi McBride (Gone in 60 Seconds, Boston Public) is his usual excellent self as the police chief who’s just as uncomfortable about the Calvess case as Tellis is. Rap star Busta Rhymes was fun alongside Samuel L. Jackson in Shaft, but is absolutely riveting here in a very physically and emotionally demanding supporting role as a major suspect. Anne Openshaw is fragile and emotionally ragged as the slain officer’s widow.
Narc is constantly working on multiple dramatic and emotional levels, and those layers will demand at least a second viewing. The characters in this film have gone through terrible times in their lives, and Carnahan’s script builds them up from their reactions to those experiences. As a result, the audience always knows where a character is coming from and why he’s so afraid, hurt, angry, etc. Editor John Gilroy deftly navigates the film between story narrative and character development with only a few distracting stylistic indulgences. This is by far the most dramatic thing he’s ever edited, and the craftsmanship here is stunning. It’s all about the emotion — even the appropriately sparse musical score by Cliff Martinez (The Limey, Traffic, Solaris) leaves Patric and Liotta almost entirely in charge of setting the film’s emotional tone. Tom Cruise, no stranger to intense characters himself, gets an executive producer credit.
The look of the film also goes a long way. Narc is a cold, lonely movie. When characters talk, you can see their breath. It’s winter in Detroit, and cinematographer Alex Nepomniaschy uses blue lens filters to make the harshest city in America seem even harsher.
You might think you’ve seen it all in cop movies, and in many ways you’re probably right. But Narc always seems to push either its story or its actors one step further to create something fresh in a genre that’s in danger of becoming stale. With lots of strong competition on TV from the likes of The Shield, cop movies have to be something that viewers can’t get on television. Narc is just that, combining an unforgettably intense story with unrelenting performances from Patric and Liotta.