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'Narc' hooks the viewer

Friday, January 10, 2003

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Narc" is a cop movie on a speed rush, taking its aesthetic cues from the very circumstances of its creation.


RATING: R for strong brutal violence, drug content and pervasive language.

STARRING: Jason Patric, Ray Liotta, Busta Rhymes.

DIRECTOR: Joe Carnahan.

WEB SITE: www.narcmovie.com


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Writer-director Joe Carnahan shot it in 27 days with his creditors pounding at the door while he and his actors made the icy back streets of Toronto look indistinguishable from the chilled ruin of Detroit, where the film is set.

And when kinetic intensity isn't enough, "Narc" contemplates the brooding profile of Jason Patric as undercover officer Nick Tellis, who spends most of the movie searching not just for a cop killer but also for answers to the turmoil in his own life.

But the first quest only churns up more angst for Nick, in large part because it teams him with Henry Oak (Ray Liotta), the dead cop's former partner, who has become obsessed with the case. After undergoing a torturous personal tragedy, Henry claims to have found a kind of peace. You wouldn't know it from his slam-bang approach to interrogations -- slam the door, bang around the perps.

The secret of "Narc's" success lies in Carnahan's ability to make the film's introspective scenes as compelling as its gritty action. The personal and professional lives of the characters keep crossing at increasingly dangerous intersections.

The movie opens with a man bursting from the door of a house in the projects and literally running for his life. A few seconds later, a second man explodes from the same house. He's carrying a gun in front of him with both hands, aimed straight ahead. The cameraman must also be going at full tilt, and by the time the scene ends with tragic recrimination, the audience is also left breathless.

Nick Tellis was the second man, and his rash action results in the death of an innocent bystander. He is suspended from the force and, despite the time it allows him to spend with his infant child while his wife (Krista Bridges) works, from the vitality and sense of purpose he needs.

So he turns aside his wife's pleas and accepts a deal that would reinstate him to the force, with all charges dropped, if he will use his undercover contacts to help track the killer of another undercover cop on a trail that has gone stone cold. He insists on working with Henry Oak, who has been removed from the case for overzealousness.

They probe ever deeper into the urban wasteland of Detroit, encountering the living dead of the drug trade and how some of them meet their pathetic ends. But they also discover things about themselves -- and about each other -- that lead to unpredictable consequences.

The movie's lengthy but fascinating climax unfolds in a grimy chop shop, where Oak uses his favored method of extracting confessions on two drug dealers (Busta Rhymes and Richard Chevolleau) he suspects of killing his partner. But Tellis has his doubts, and goes about pursuing the truth in his own way.

Patric, wearing stubble and the look of a man who isn't sure what it is he needs to find, forgoes any surface glossiness and blends right into the embattled landscape of "Narc." Liotta, who helped produce the movie, delivers his best performance in eons. While there are elements in Henry Oak of the actor's over-the-top persona, there are also very deep and troubled waters coursing through his soul.

Carnahan, whose previous film was the cheapie, pulpy "Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane," has come a long way. "Narc" hooks the audience and doesn't let go.

Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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