Narc (2002)

Cynthia Fuchs

Both Henry and Nick are addicted, in different ways, to the job, the adrenalin it churns up.


Director: Joe Carnahan
Cast: Jason Patric, Ray Liotta, Busta Rhymes, Chi McBride, Richard Chevolleau
Distributor: limited
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Paramount
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2002-12-20 (Limited release)

Narc begins with a bang. Right smack in the middle of a furious on-foot chase: doors slamming, legs churning, faces twisting, car alarms shrieking, guns blasting. The camera barely keeps up as they charge through a park, where bystanders watch, frozen. At first, it's hard to tell who's the good guy and who's bad; both are so fried and grisly looking. Then, when it's over, after one grabs a child hostage and the other shoots his mother, accidentally, it's still hard to tell.

Similar chaos -- formal, moral, emotional -- pervades Joe Carnahan's first feature. Set in Detroit (shot in Toronto) and some 18 months after this first frenetic scene, it concerns two narcotics detectives working to solve the murder of a third. Both are troubled and angry; neither wants to be working with the other. Nick Tellis (Jason Patric) is actually suspended when he's called to the case; deep undercover in that first scene, he was the accidental and now agonizingly remorseful shooter. Because of his "prolonged contact with the city's drug element," Nick's offered "complete reinstatement" if he'll play ball. Depressed and reluctant (he's a recovering addict), Nick agrees to come back, rationalizing that he needs to support his wife and new baby.

The second detective is the aptly named Henry Oak (Ray Liotta), partner to the dead cop, Calvess (played in flashbacks by Alan Van Sprang). Self-righteous, tenacious and tetchy, Henry's understandably obsessed with this case, mad it's gone cold in the past few months (for one thing, it flies in the face of his 93% conviction rate). No surprise, he's particularly opposed to teaming with a younger "hotshot" named by their no-nonsense captain, Cheevers (Chi McBride). At the same time, each man has reason to commit to the assignment: Nick sees the murder case as a chance to redeem himself, and Henry wants to avenge Calvess' death.

Perhaps the most compelling reason is one they share: both Henry and Nick are addicted, in different ways, to the job, the adrenalin it churns up, the authority it conveys, the tests of character it imposes. Still grieving over the wife he lost to cancer years ago, Henry observes, "I became a much better cop the day she died," less constrained by emotional ties, more disposed to blow through a suspect's door. Nick nods, at once appreciating and abhorring Henry's calculated carelessness.

Gradually, the new partners develop mutual respect alongside their lingering distrust. Equally put off by the "politics" they must endure (and get around) to do their work, they're also differently disgusted by their junkie informants. "It's almost impossible that you're this dumb," sneers Henry as one grovels for a hit. Nick's face reveals both his understanding of the guy's plight, as well as his own judgments -- of the addict's abjection and Henry's bitter cruelty.

Their differences of attitude and self-image are increasingly pronounced. In another apartment, they discover another lead, already dead in his tub, skull and brains splattered on the wall behind him. Within minutes, Nick surmises what happened based on details that the coroner hasn't even observed yet. Impressed by Nick's acuity, Henry's also entertained by the account (the man inadvertently killed himself with a shotgun he was using for a bong). But the scene's real story concerns their evolving misgivings about the case and each other, a growing distance between them, suggested by a series of abrupt one-shots and subtle jump shots (thanks to cinematographer Alex Nepomniaschy, designer Greg Beale, and editor John Gilroy).

Both prone to displays of temper, neither Nick nor Henry is inclined to spill his guts. Their tough moral codes and reticence are predicated on "real-life" cops (Carnahan says he was inspired by Errol Morris's 1976 documentary, The Thin Blue Line), these guys are also throwbacks to '70s cop-movie protagonists. This comparison has been made repeatedly -- in fact, it's become part of Narc's marketing campaign. To this end, Carnahan tells the New York Times (3 November 2002) that William Friedkin called it "the best cop film ever." High praise from the man who made The French Connection, and who happens to be married to Sherry Lansing, head of Paramount Pictures, currently releasing the film, after enthusiastic prodding by Tom Cruise and his producing partner, Paula Wagner (who came on as executive producers following its screening at last year's Sundance Festival).

All this hype (along with its implied measure against current action-packed cop movies), has raised Narc's profile considerably. But it leaves out what may be the film's most surprising aspect, its sharp assessment of the ways that poverty, violence, and racism continue to shape urban cop movies (not to mention life outside movies).

On one level, this consideration takes a standard form: the prime suspects in Calvess' murder are a couple of black dealers, Beery (Busta Rhymes) and Steeds (Richard Chevolleau). By the time Nick and Henry track them down in an abandoned warehouse, the facts look pretty well established. Most of their interviews have involved men of color on filthy street corners or in grim crackhouses, and they've led to an expected showdown. That's not to say, if you've paid attention to the complications of the investigation and the detectives' relationship, that you won't also expect some twists in this formula.

But Narc makes this process of connecting movie-plot dots into a self-reflexive exercise, on several levels. Not only does it repeatedly recall characters like Popeye Doyle or Dirty Harry, it also recalls their contexts -- the situations that forced them to violence and "tough choices." Nick and Henry come at their choices from alarmingly opposite starting points, but their eventual sameness is almost more disturbing. With Beery and Steeds tied to chairs and roaring their protests against the beating and raging the cops inflict, the film's indictment of the cops' motives becomes razor-sharp, the violence more grotesque and frightening.

Here's the great trick: the suspects become "humanized" even as it becomes more difficult to see their faces, bloodied, shadowed, bowed in fear and resistance. (How different this is from the standard representation of "perps" in cop movies.) And the cops become your objects of disgust -- the extreme, sometimes thrilling, sometimes horrifying abuses you've already seen them dole out suddenly coming to a head that makes you recognize your responses for what they are -- responses to an entertainment that Henry also understands, responses that link you with him, tough cop hero.

Now, it's as if the dirty darkness of dirty dark cop movies is not only a function of mostly predictable and apparently inevitable plot machinations, but also a kind of broadly moral palette, extending far into the ongoing culture that produces the film, beyond the individual filmmakers' sensibilities. Like Nick and Henry, you can see in this darkness, in new ways. It's a stunning turnaround of a moment, not so much for the costs to the characters -- all of them -- but also to you.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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