- The Washington Times - Friday, January 10, 2003

"Narc" is a tense and resourceful crime thriller that observes a temperamental mismatch of Ray Liotta as impulsive, aggressive cop and Jason Patric as pensive, introspective cop. It rivals "Roger Dodger" as the best sleeper of 2002.
Written and directed by a brawny and outgoing young filmmaker named Joe Carnahan, the movie has a sense of immediacy. It evokes savory but arguably overfamiliar aspects of such police melodramas as "The French Connection," "Serpico," "Seven," "Insomnia" and "Training Day."
Mr. Liotta's Henry Oak is assigned to the robbery-homicide division in Detroit. Mr. Patric's Nick Tellis has been on suspension for a year and a half after being forced into a gun battle while operating as an undercover narcotics agent. The basic character contrast between the two is far from unprecedented. Clouds from Internal Affairs investigations linger over both men, as they did with Al Pacino's character in "Insomnia." And heaven only knows how Tellis will account for his final day on the job with Oak an imponderable that also blurred the fade-out of "Training Day."
Nevertheless, I can't remember the last police melodrama that incorporated the sort of domestic scenes that punctuate "Narc." These involve Mr. Patric with Krista Bridges as an apprehensive wife named Audrey, and they are memorably augmented by the presence of an infant son.
To my shock and admiration, the baby wasn't established in one episode and then relegated to invisibility somewhere off-screen for the remainder of the picture. He's consistently present, beginning with a scene in which Mr. Patric is bathing him and concluding with a domestic spat in which the actor seems to calm him while pretending to wrangle with Miss Bridges. There's also a remarkable interlude in which the baby is posed sleeping between his parents in their bed, his breathing patterns subtly but eerily amplified on the soundtrack.
According to Mr. Carnahan, it wasn't an ingenious simulation of the authentic sound, just an amplification from the microphone nearest the baby. In context, you're reminded that Mrs. Tellis has a lot to be apprehensive about if her spouse insists on returning to the streets, evidently a die-hard obsession. You're also reminded of how much genuine sight-and-sound realism remains to be captured in fictional movies that aspire to reproduce a lifelike illusion.
The lone wolf, the law-unto-himself Oak, is a characterization that obliged Mr. Liotta to bulk up by 25 pounds or so, providing him with a dynamically effective new illusion of mass and forcefulness.
Oak has no private life. Its absence is documented cleverly in one sustained reverie about a beloved, deceased wife and in his overcompensating possessiveness about the widow of a protege, a narc named Michael Calvess (Alan Van Sprang). Calvess is depicted in flashbacks that anticipate an ultimate revelation about his violent death on the job several months earlier. This is the unsolved crime that has brought Oak and Tellis together as a dicey investigative team.
The ostensible Detroit locations have been faked with considerable atmospheric distinction in wintry Toronto, circa the early weeks of 2001. Several of them would be difficult to surpass for inducing shivers, notably the dead-end street where Calvess' widow resides and the cavernous, shadowy auto shop where Oak and Tellis have a bruising showdown with two suspects, played by Busta Rhymes and Richard Chevellous.
Two tendencies I haven't been keen on lately an abundance of hand-held camerawork and muted color schemes work so effectively in "Narc" that I was obliged to reconsider for the duration. Cinematographer Alex Nepomniaschy, whose previous credits range from "Safe" to "Never Been Kissed," demonstrates a flair for embedding pools of expressive color within bleak or desaturated compositions.
For example, the lighting of the restaurant where Oak and Tellis first meet recalls the sort of isolated, unnerving brilliance of the hospital entrance during the winter scene in "The Godfather." It's possible that Joe Carnahan is exceptionally attuned to the menace that can lurk in ordinary or disarming places; if so, he may prove a substantial asset to the movie thriller.

***
TITLE: "Narc"
RATING: R (Frequent profanity and graphic violence, with gruesome illustrative details; settings that emphasize urban squalor; fleeting nudity and episodes of domestic conflict)
CREDITS: Written and directed by Joe Carnahan.
RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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