Man, I love the gunfire effects. I won’t lie. I love ’em.
— Joe Carnahan, Commentary on Narc
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 over walls and through a park, where bystanders watch, frozen. At first, it’s hard to tell who’s the good guy and who’s not; both characters 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.
As writer-director Joe Carnahan notes on the commentary track for Paramount’s features-packed DVD, his thought for this first scene was, “Why don’t we just jump on the audience’s throat?” And that’s what it feels like: pounding, invasive, unnerving. Carnahan says, “This scene is obviously very rambunctious and very high energy and very violent, and very immediate. It really was about propulsion, it was about go-go-go.” He and editor John Gilroy add that the running camera here is held by a stuntman, the only guy they could find who was “in shape enough to keep up with Jason [Patric],” ripping through backyards and alleys as if there’s no tomorrow.
Similar chaos — formal, moral, emotional — pervades Joe Carnahan’s first feature. Set in Detroit (much of it 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 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), erstwhile 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, fuming that 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, ominously hushed). 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 assigns, 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, and the film includes an early-on “homage” shot, a gun falling into the frame in slow motion), these guys are also throwbacks to ’70s cop-movie protagonists, on the line between
This comparison has been made repeatedly — in fact, it became integral to 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.”
This is surely high praise from the man who made The French Connection, and who happens to be married to Sherry Lansing, head of Paramount Pictures, who releases 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). The DVD includes an interview with Friedkin, “The Friedkin Connection,” in which he reasserts his admiration for the picture, especially its nervy inclusion of shots showing Nick’s disintegrating “home life” (the sort of emotional exploration he says he shot for French Connection, then cut, nine scenes worth).
The hype for Narc (along with its implied measure against current action-packed cop movies), raised its profile considerably. But it left 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.
It also makes this case as a formal level. As Carnahan puts it, he and Gilroy came up with a “language” for the film, using jump cuts, obstructed shots, wintry tones, dissolves, repetitions, and crosscutting. Relying on Gilroy and DP Alex Nepomniaschy (whom he chose, he says, because he shot Todd Haynes’ brilliant Safe, with such “a deliberate formality”), Carnahan says he devised a “fractured narrative,” and they put the aesthetic into practice on the set. In one of several featurettes on the DVD, “Making the Deal,” the director says that Liotta was key to this process as well as the production (he and his wife and producing partner, Michelle Grace, came on board early and helped secure financing for the picture). Carnahan effuses, “Ray really inhabited this role; he gained the weight, he allowed himself to be physically distressed and aged up, and the work that was done on his eyes to give him this kind of calloused look and the ruddiness to his skin, and this great kind of wolfish goatee that he grew… Ray looks like he’s lived life. He looks like he’s been through, like he’s had his share of battles.” Patric adds, suitably cryptically, “We’re very different as people and as actors, and I think that makes it a combustible mix.”
“We wanted it to feel as though you were eavesdropping on a real event,” says Carnahan. Perhaps the most “real” aspect to this event is that it leads to an exposure of racism and ugliness that rarely emerge in slick cop movies. As Oak beats Beery and Steeds to bloody pulps, as their faces become harder to see, shadowed, bowed in fear and resistance, they become more sympathetic, more potent as characters. And the cops become 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 own responses for what they are — responses to an entertainment that Henry also understands, responses that link you with him, tough cop hero.
As Beery puts it when Oak plants a gun on them, “Where we grow up man, you kill a motherfucking cop, they will crown you king motherfucking con. You understand what I’m saying? But ain’t nobody here talking about killing no cop. Oak come here, trying to fucking stick this shit to some niggas, because he know that anytime you stick some shit to some niggas, it’s gonna stay stuck.”
“Where we come from.” This is the bit of empathy that Nick must come to, an understanding of their different worlds, before he can crack the case and find a sort of truth. 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, as to you.