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Category:    Home > Reviews > Drama > Thriller > Narc



Picture: B-     Sound: B-     Extras: B     Film: B+



Narc might leave you bruised.  I mean that as no faint praise.


It’s tough—‘70s tough—with brutality to spare. And it’s great entertainment. It doesn’t reinvent anything—it’s a fairly uncomplicated police drama, as simple as cops-pushed-over-the-edge vs. the scum of the streets—but it doesn’t try to, which is more refreshing in this genre than you might think.


It takes hold in the very first scene.  It’s as basic as the film’s premise, but it shows how the proper verve can elevate even a familiar idea.  It’s a frantic chase sequence, good guy after bad guy on foot.  Nothing innovative, but skillful photography and editing make it harrowing, exciting in a very primal sense.  I can’t think of another film that becomes so nerve-wracking so quickly.


The plot concerns undercover narcotics officer Nick Tellis (Jason Patric), who’s reinstated by the Detroit Police Force after an 18 month suspension that resulted from an investigation gone awry—let’s just say the conclusion of that opening chase isn’t pretty.  The department has a dead officer on its hands—another narc—and no leads whatsoever.  Nick’s firsthand knowledge of the local drug scene is their only hope of figuring out who the killer is.  Nick isn’t too keen on returning to the field—he has a wife and baby to worry about, not to mention painful memories of his last undercover stint—but solving the case is the only way he can earn a desk, so he teams up with Henry Oak (Ray Liotta in a ferocious performance), the deceased officer’s partner and a veritable pit-bull of a cop, and hits the street.


It’s familiar territory, but the conviction of its writer/director and actors make it quite memorable. It’s ironic that, in a time when most films strive desperately to achieve great meaning and complexity—and for the most part end up feeling hollow—a film content to be no more than a solid genre picture actually resonates.


Director Joe Carnahan has pulled off quite a turnaround on his sophomore outing—his first film, Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane, was a forgettable Tarantino rip-off that gave no inkling of the talent it’s now apparent he has.  More filmmakers should take clues from ‘70s films, the way Narc does.  Directors shouldn’t be afraid to just make a good genre picture—it’s not such a lowly pursuit.


Now if only Carnahan would direct a throwback to ‘70s horror.


Narc is presented anamorphically in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and, while far from reference quality, actually looks better than it should, considering its modest budget.  The transfer is a tad soft, with noticeable compression here and there, but generally more than adequate.  The film’s opposing color schemes—the warm colors of Tellis’ home life and the cold colors of his work life—are nicely rendered.  The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is similarly straightforward and competent.  While the LFE and rear channels seldom come into play—only the gunshots fill out all channels—the film’s score is active across the front.  A Dolby Surround mix is also included.  All in all, the presentation is solid for an independently produced film.


Narc’s supplements are surprisingly in-depth.  The three featurettes that I expected to be cheesy EPK scraps actually comprise one approximately 45-minute candid, unglamorous look at the film’s rather rocky production.  Carnahan is interviewed, along with his cinematographer, editor, several producers, and even executive producer Tom Cruise.  Providing additional insight into the film’s production as well as its themes is the commentary by Carnahan and editor John Gilroy, in which the pair come off as intelligent, funny, and completely unpretentious.  It’s one of the better directors’ tracks I’ve lately heard, though you could almost complain it’s a bit too light.  There’s also the 10-minute “Friedkin Connection,” in which director William Friedkin, one of Carnahnan’s biggest influences, heaps praise on Narc, lamenting that fact that it wasn’t more celebrated upon release and discussing the change in audiences since the ‘70s.  Finally, the film’s theatrical trailer is included, presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital, letterboxed but non-anamorphic.


For fans of Narc, Paramount’s DVD is well worth a purchase.  If you’ve yet to see it, you’re missing out on one of the best films of 2003.



-   Chad Eberle


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