Review: Joe Carnahan’s Narc on Limited Edition Arrow Video 4K Ultra HD

Narc is one of the gnarliest and most powerful crime films of early-aughts American cinema.

NarcJoe Carnahan’s Narc opens in a frenzy, as a narcotics detective, Nick Tellis (Jason Patric), chases a drug dealer through the streets of Detroit on foot. There are echoes here of the foot chase that unspools midway through Kathyrn Bigelow’s Point Break, with these men bashing forth in and out of houses, over fences, through playgrounds, their collision with endless variables driving up anxiety. Narc’s images aren’t as polished as that film’s, partially by necessity, partially by design, as Tellis’s improvisations to get his perp mirror those of Carnahan, who’s fashioning a high-voltage set piece on the fly, an upstart filmmaker balling on a budget. It’s a hell of an opening, establishing Narc’s tortured atmosphere and fractured aesthetic, with shaky, chilly images cut and reassembled (by editor John Gilroy) into shards that suggest policework to be a roaring inferno.

The dealer is carrying a syringe that we’ll eventually learn is full of a very particular kind of spiked smack. He plunges it into a bystander’s neck while eluding Tellis, and Carnahan, strikingly, stops to survey this victim in pain as he goes into cardiac arrest. This person’s suffering matters to Carnahan. When Tellis enters a standoff that leads to a pregnant woman being shot and the child lost, the director lingers on the woman’s bleeding as Tellis cries out in agony. Narc, then, is a cop movie in which people’s pain is accorded stature, with the exploitation elements inherent to the drug-thriller genre enriched by pathos.

That doesn’t mean that Carnahan is softening the genre though. Narc is stylish and hard-boiled—a noir with moral common sense that expects the viewer to keep up with its mood swings. Released in 2002, the film represented one of the last gasps to date of a cop thriller that was rooted in the gritty flavor of 1970s-era cinema, and one that was more than an ultraviolent amusement park ride or a sanctimonious civics lesson. Even Carnahan himself would succumb to the trends of the times, as many of his subsequent films are more redolent of a Guy Ritchie crime-movie karaoke party than of the ambiguous, lived-in textures that he captures here.

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His career ruined in the wake of that unborn child’s death, Tellis agrees to help the Detroit Police Department with the unsolved murder of another narc, Michael Calvess (Alan Van Sprang). You don’t have to be a crime junkie to sense that the murder smells bad. Calvess’s partner, Henry Oak (Ray Liotta), is highly unstable and personally invested in the case. No one in power cares about Calvess, and Oak is running wild barely supervised, with the disgraced Tellis expected to proffer enough of a solution to the mystery to justify filing it away into oblivion. Tellis and Oak fall into an uneasy odd-couple rhythm, banging on the doors of the junkies and dealers who are among Tellis’s contacts in the drug world, and who overlap with Calvess’s own network of contacts. We will learn that Tellis and Calvess overlap in many other ways as well, with the latter coming to suggest a possible harbinger of doom for the former.

There are sops to formula in Narc, which it transcends with smart, small, pivotal details. Tellis’s wife, Audrey (Krista Bridges), is essentially the wife of many cops in many crime movies, lecturing him on doing the things that you may want him to do, because if he didn’t there wouldn’t be a story. But Audrey isn’t quite positioned as a nag, as Tellis is himself a recovering drug addict who was nearly destroyed by his profession. Audrey and Tellis’s scenes are animated by the energy and dread, then, of his possibly relapsing. That’s a more volatile reason for a fight than “you missed dinner tonight, hon” and Carnahan and the actors inform these scenes with the minute gestures that characterize real relationships. A close-in shot of Tellis, Audrey, and their baby bunched together on the couch illustrates what Tellis’s demons could unravel.

Throughout Narc, Oak is neither celebrated as an avatar of right-wing vengeance, a man who cleans the streets of its scum, nor entirely demonized as a left-wing paragon of a cop drunk on bitterness and power. More poignantly, and tragically, Oak is understood to be a man distorted by personal damage who commits despicable actions. Desperate to close the Calvess case and set up a future for Calvess’s widow and children, all of whom he became attached to after the death of his wife, Oak is willing to discard other notions of decency.

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Oak is a gruff, hulking, wounded dog, and his volatility culminates in an incendiary climax, as he cuffs two Black drug dealers (Busta Rhymes and Richard Chevolleau) together in a warehouse, attempting to beat a confession out of them. This sequence conjures too many cases of racially motivated police brutality to count, and Carnahan is sensitive to the evil of the scene—the victims’ pain is foregrounded—which is all the more haunting because we feel as if we understand how Oak got to this moment. As William Friedkin said during Narc’s release, Oak suggests a modernization of Hank Quinlan, the corrupt cop of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil. Both are fallen idealists, worn down by endless atrocities into bigoted vigilantes.

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Patric and Liotta are extraordinary. Patric underscores every scene with Tellis’s terror of relapse, not just into drugs but into the narcotic thrill of the wrecking-crew violence that Oak has succumbed to in his desolation. Most actors as Tellis would let Liotta “win” all the scenes, but there’s a constant push and pull between the characters and the performers. Patric doesn’t sentimentalize Tellis’s decency, showing it to be a hard-won refuge against chaos. And Liotta captures something about big, scary men that most movies don’t understand, which is that their dangerousness is fueled by a vulnerability that’s essentially nave.

Liotta has many bad boys on his résumé, and they have a strange youthful romanticism that renders them singular. Carnahan, understanding what makes Liotta tick, supplies him with one of the most heartbreaking moments of his career, when Oak tells Tellis of his deceased wife. Remembering sitting with his head in her lap after a demoralizing day at work, Oak says he’s “never been to a better place.” Liotta, that lion, plays it as a man who’s trying to be so straightforward with his emotions that they don’t scan as emotional, and the resistance only intensifies Oak’s nakedness. This is how tough guys bare their souls.

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Carnahan’s aversion to platitudes renders Narc all the more effective as a political movie, as the film accepts in its bones the corruption and futility of the war on drugs. The narcotics detectives here, except for Oak, who’s tarnished in a different way, are all barely distinguishable from the addicts. The cops and addicts are understood by Carnahan to be in perpetual play-acting, trading back and forth roles of host and parasite, with an endgame imperceptible. The solution to Calvess’s mystery doesn’t make much literal sense, but emotionally it stings with its futile obviousness. Calvess was gone long before he was gone, in league with the damned, like Tellis and Oak to varying degrees. The film’s final image is of a tape recorder. We don’t know whether it was on when the truth was revealed because it doesn’t matter.

Image/Sound

This 4K presentation, approved by director Joe Carnahan and D.P. Alex Nepomniaschy, looks impressive. Narc is a shadowy film, with a sepia tint that was fashionable in American crime cinema at the time, and that spectrum of darkness is rendered with a surprising amount of variation. The blacks are rich, and the depth of field is striking, which is evident in scenes set in police offices that abound in visual information in the fore, middle, and backgrounds, all rendered with eye-tickling clarity that borders on creaminess. The lighter colors of the image, especially the whites, are a little shrill, but then they always have been, even in the theater. Appealing grain levels have been maintained, giving the image a hearty filmic texture.

Both sound mixes—a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 and Dolby Atmos track, respectively—are sharp and immersive, with a confident balance of a vast range of aural effects, though these ears couldn’t discern much difference between them. No complaints here, though Atmos purists might be looking for a more pronounced “bump” in presentation.

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Extras

New interviews with Carnahan, Nepomniaschy, actress Krista Bridges, and costume designer Gersha Phillips cover the spectrum of the film’s making, particularly in terms of adjusting to the strictures of a low budget. More informative is the archive audio commentary by Carnahan and editor John Gilroy. Cinephiles and aspiring filmmakers should find their stories of fashioning Narc’s rhythms, especially the crisscrossing of multiple scenes, particularly notable.

A bunch of other archival extras are also included here, from interviews with all of the film’s notables to an endorsement of Narc by William Friedkin. It’s all fairly surface-level stuff, though there’s an archive interview with Liotta that’s included in the booklet that illustrates his thoroughness of preparation for his character. The booklet is rounded out by a new essay by critic Michelle Kisner, a new interview with producer Diane Nabatoff, production notes and various archive articles, and a double-sided poster. An engaging collection of odds and ends in search of a meaty supplement to tie the room together, so to speak.

Overall

Arrow Video offers a sharp and spry 4K rendering of one of the gnarliest and most powerful crime films of early aughts American cinema.

Score: 
 Cast: Jason Patric, Ray Liotta, Chi McBride, A.C. Peterson, Lina Giornofelice, Karen Robinson, Krista Bridges, Dan Leis, Lloyd Adams, Busta Rhymes  Director: Joe Carnahan  Screenwriter: Joe Carnahan  Distributor: Arrow Video  Running Time: 115 min  Rating: R  Year: 2002  Release Date: May 21, 2024  Buy: Video, Soundtrack

Chuck Bowen

Chuck Bowen's writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, The AV Club, Style Weekly, and other publications.

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