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.