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Ray Liotta asks Jason Patric if he's got food in his teeth.

© 2002, Paramount
All Rights Reserved

After barely surviving an undercover narcotics bust that went horribly wrong, detective Nick Tellis (Jason Patric) is looking to leave his past life as a narc behind him. Promised a desk job if he takes on one more investigation, Tellis is partnered with Henry Oak (Ray Liotta), a bulging bear of a man with little to no control over his temper. The case seems simple enough: find the murderers who killed an undercover officer, and close the case. However, as Tellis investigates, he uncovers a seething underground of corruption, lies and betrayals that lead him to accusations he fears to make.

"Narc" (IMDb listing) regrettably has the honor of trailing the recent surge of TV cop dramas. With shows like "NYPD Blue" and "The Shield," audiences can simply stay at home to get their fill of double-crossings, bad cops and testosterone-driven confrontations. Initially, all that "Narc" can bring to the screen that television cannot is cursing and a bit more blood. Remarkably, writer/director Joe Carnahan manages to rise above those pedestrian roots to offer one of the finest police thriller/dramas to come out in the last ten years.

This is Carnahan's second feature, following up his 1998 debut film, "Blood, Guts, Bullets, and Octane," a forgettable Tarantino-esque thriller that was made for $7,000. "Narc" gives Carnahan a bigger budget (not by much), and stars to tussle with, and part of the curiosity within "Narc" is seeing what Carnahan can do with a broader canvas. Lamentably, some of his low-budget filmmaking tricks have followed him to the big leagues (shaky, handheld camera setups, "shock audio" flashbacks), but for every misstep the director makes in detailing this tale, he comes through with profound moments of brutality and fervent personal questioning. "Narc" goes beyond the small screen simply by refusing to let go of the audience for its entire 105 minutes, piling on the suspense and dread to a fever pitch, and refusing (until the final moments) to let go. Obviously crafted with much love and inspiration from the genre of 1970s cop thrillers (most notably from William Friedkin's "The French Connection," and the pictures of Sidney Lumet), Carnahan's "Narc" is as rough and tumble as these kinds of films get, making it, if not entirely revolutionary, at least an attention-grabbing experience of the highest order.

"Narc" finds its greatest blessing in its actors. Again, taking on well-worn material, both Jason Patric and Ray Liotta do wonders in making this narrative their own. Patric, having been away from films for a couple of years now (no complaints from me), returns to "Narc" with a performance that recalls his work in 1991's "Rush." Patric's Tellis is a torrent of self-loathing and guilt. He's a police officer who's seen his share of danger and misery, and simply wants to ride out the rest of his career behind the safety of a desk. The trick to Patric's performance is that Tellis maintains that desire, even as he finds himself growing more deeply involved in, and curious about, this last throwaway case. Patric has never impressed me as much as he does in "Narc."

Slapping on 30 pounds, and burying himself under a goatee, Ray Liotta morphs into a foaming mad dog for his performance as Oak. Liotta has a wealth of intense portrayals under his belt, with his work here ranking near the top. Just like Patric, Liotta has a mountain of character pathos to shape in the film. His Oak is a cop who is desperate to solve this murder, yet unable to fully confront the emotional toll it's taking on his mental stability. This could've easily gone the wrong by making Oak a deplorable monster. Liotta and Carnahan are more interested in how Oak ticks, leaving him a police character who willingly breaks the law, yet is also a man dedicated to upholding honor. It's an impassioned performance.

"Narc" features gripping plot twists and backstabbing as it follows its bleak and coffee-stained story, with its only sin being that it takes the easy way out for its resolution. There is a clear way this story should end, yet Carnahan takes a different route, and while his approach on the true resolution of the case is far too pat, the rest of this authoritative, skillfully performed picture makes for a great reason to forgive any last minute jitters.

Filmfodder Grade: A-

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