In addition to starring in Narc, Ray Liotta also produced, which makes sense because the film gives him a great part. Narc is about disgraced ex-cop Jason Patric getting back on the job because the department (Detroit, with Toronto standing in but never noticeably) has a dead cop and they need a fresh set of eyes. Why Patric? Because otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie? Ostensibly it’s because Patric was an undercover narcotics officer (subtle title nod) and the dead cop was also an undercover narcotics officer (something writer and director Carnahan somehow manages to forget to establish, but hey, the script’s often messy). Basically it’s a Hail Mary pass.
Only Patric’s gotten to be a pretty okay guy since leaving the coppers and wife Krista Bridges doesn’t want him going back. He hems and haws a little bit about it, but he’s not going to listen to her, of course. Otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie. Also because Carnahan avoids doing real scenes between Bridges and Patric like the film depends on it. And it probably does. Narc relies on Patric to be able to give the impression of being the lead in some kind of character study when it turns out Narc isn’t going to be about Patric at all. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Patric takes one look at the files and decides the department needs to bring back Liotta, who’s the bad cop the good cops love (he beats up suspects, plants evidence, whatever). The silly liberals in the city have taken Liotta off the case—even though he knew the murdered cop (Alan Van Sprang in flashbacks)—and he’s got a great conviction rate. Patric convinces boss Chi McBride (great in a nothing part) to bring Liotta back and now it’s time for the second act. Second act basically becomes a study of Liotta, with occasional cuts to Bridges being mad at Patric and Patric ignoring her because it’s a cop movie and silly woman. Also there are these gorgeous shots of Patric by himself in the urban blight considering his existence, set to the wondrous Cliff Martinez score, with even more wondrous Alex Nepomniaschy photography. Narc often looks and sounds fantastic. Not so much when Carnahan’s doing this silly quartered screen thing showing Patric and Liotta’s amazing investigatory skills; the sound design is intentionally confusing and pointless. Kind of like the amazing investigatory skills—all Liotta and Patric end up doing is showing the dead cop’s photograph to various Black guys in bad neighborhoods. There’s a lot of lip service paid to the possible racial unrest Liotta will bring to the investigation—because he’s the racist bad cop good cops love, even Black commander McBride—but all the actual bad guys are white. Does Liotta ever realize he’s wrong based on empirical evidence? No. But whatever. It’s not like the investigatory aspect of Narc is its strength. Carnahan doesn’t write a great mystery, he directs a great gritty character study and pretends his script is going to match. It eventually doesn’t (the third act), but thanks to Liotta’s performance and the perception of Patric’s at the time, Carnahan is able to then pretend he’s been doing an intentionally peculiarly plotted mystery the whole time.
And he gets away with it. Narc is not, in the end, a success. It does not realize its initial ambitions or narrative gesture. But the film gets away with it because of the intensity of the acting, intensity of the filmmaking. Who cares if Patric’s character entirely changes in the last thirty minutes. Maybe we never knew him at all, maybe we were just projecting, maybe Liotta was just projecting, maybe everyone was just projecting onto Patric’s tabula rasa. We weren’t, of course, and not just because it’s impossible to project onto Patric; his handlebar mustache and soul patch would get in the way.
But Carnahan is able to get away with it, because of built-up goodwill and (apparently) de facto liberal sensitivities.
In its third act, Narc becomes one of those mysteries where the resolution doesn’t have to succeed so much as not screw up the previous two acts too much. A bummer to be sure, but still an extremely well-made film with two great lead performances. Even if Patric’s character goes absurdly to pot.
Carnahan and his production designers, Greg Beale and Taavo Soodor, do spectacular work. Especially on the limited budget. The limited budget kind of perturbs when you realize it’d have been very cheap to do those much needed scenes between Patric and Bridges and Carnahan just chokes on it instead. That Nepomniaschy photography is great, that Martinez score is great, Liotta is great, Patric is (mostly) great. So what if the second half of the script’s shaky and Carnahan doesn’t know how to establish ground situations.
The script is just a delivery system for the filmmaking, the acting. Not ideal, not successful, but… good enough. Especially since the dialogue’s solid (there’s just not enough of it).
Written and directed by Joe Carnahan; director of photography, Alex Nepomniaschy; edited by John Gilroy; music by Cliff Martinez; production designers, Greg Beale and Taavo Soodor; produced by Michelle Grace, Ray Liotta, Diane Nabatoff, and Julius R. Nasso; released by Paramount Pictures.
Starring Jason Patric (Nick Tellis), Ray Liotta (Henry Oak), Krista Bridges (Audrey Tellis), Chi McBride (Captain Cheevers), Tony De Santis (Medical Examiner Art Harlan), Anne Openshaw (Kathryn Calvess), Bishop Brigante (Eugene Sheps), and Alan Van Sprang (Michael Calvess).