Cinematic Revival

JUST WATCHED: 'Narc'

Joe Carnahan's 2002 cop thriller is worth the time!

This week's Cinematic Revival jumps forward several years. After visiting Seven Samurai (read here) and Citizen Kane (read here) I thought it would be more appropriate to take a look at a more modern film, and Narc is a film I regret missing. When writer/director Joe Carnahan released Smokin' Aces earlier this year I thought it was a kick ass good time. A heavy dose of violence mixed in with a cool little story. Basically it was everything Shoot 'Em Up was trying to be, too bad Shoot 'Em Up forgot to bring anything resembling a story to the table.

Since I enjoyed Smokin' Aces so much I hit the local DVD stores and could not find Narc to save my life. I didn't want to get a Blockbuster card so I skipped the rental counter and I didn't want to wait a year ordering a copy off the Net. Now, with the Netflix account, it was much easier and I didn't have to worry about anything other than tossing it in the mail when I was done, although after watching it now I want it.

Narc was released in limited theaters in 2002 and received fantastic reviews garnering an 85% "Certified Fresh" rating from the critics at RottenTomatoes yet only $10,465,659 in box-office returns as it only saw 822 theaters at its widest reach. Clocking in with a production budget ranging around $6.5 million the film can be considered a financial success, but based on how good it is I certainly wish it had fared better at the box.

Starring Jason Patric and Ray Liotta this is a cop thriller centered on the death of undercover narcotics officer (i.e. narc) Michael Calvess. The film begins by giving us some insight into the career of Nick Tellis (Patric). Like Calvess, Tellis was a narc as well, but he was suspended after accidentally shooting a pregnant woman while chasing a druggie through a Detroit park. Months later he is given an opportunity to get back on the job when the police need help bringing Calvess' killer(s) to justice.

Tellis is ultimately teamed up with Calvess' ex-partner Henry Oak (Liotta), a cop that pretty much plays by his own rules and is consistently in the watchful eye of internal affairs. Despite his wife's disapproval Tellis agrees to work the case alongside Oak. In what sounds like a pretty straight forward story, Narc is a perfect example showing that a good movie never wastes a scene.

There are plenty of twists and turns on the way to the final frame of this flick and it proves that Joe Carnahan is certainly one of our more unique filmmakers and it is a shame he doesn't make more films. Since Narc was released in 2002, Carnahan has only directed one of the short films for the BMW series "The Hire" and Smokin' Aces. In a five year span that is far too few a number of films for a director that brings this kind of electricity and intrigue to a film.

Of course there are logic problems with Narc and if a real police detective were to sit down and watch it I am sure he/she could point out plenty more than I could, but fortunately fast paced editing and the intriguing investigation helps distract you from potential plot holes and missteps.

Unlike my previous look at earlier films Narc doesn't really offer up as many filmmaking techniques to be observed, its beauty is in the telling, but there are a few things to point out.

First off, listening to the audio commentary on the DVD with Carnahan and his editor John Gilroy you learn that the majority of the film used actual production sound, which is something that really adds to the reality of the feature. However, outside of sound you should pick up on the realism immediately from the first frame involving a shaky foot chase; reality was definitely something Carnahan was really going for.

A second piece of filmmaking to notice was the choice of how to handle the investigative montage. As you can see in the screen grab above, instead of your traditional montage of beatin' the streets, the decision was to split it up into frames ranging from 2-4 separate frames on screen depicting various aspects of the investigation. The added music track from Cliff Martinez adds to the scene which is bookended very well with a great transition into the montage, capped off with the opening door at the end. Carnahan makes fun of people who say this, since he claims it was an accident, but I am feeling generous, mistakes that work well deserve credit.

Another cool piece of info dropped in the commentary relating to this was that Jason Patric's scenes were actually him questioning a variety of real people on the street as if he was a real cop (lower left quadrant above). He was given an official Detroit PD badge, mic'd up with a wireless and began asking people if they knew they guy he was looking for. They would then ask the folks to sign the release afterwards. The great thing is that some of the people actually said they recognized the guy.

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  • Josh Ziemer

    I watched this film tonight since it's one of my favorite films and I thought I would see if you did anything on this film. I am very happy you did Brad and you nailed the reasons why its so great. I love this film and feel its really underrated. I was worried Carnahan would stick with he comedy action flicks but he got back with the dark gritty type with the Grey. I hope he can keep this type of style up because it has a great feel to it and reminds me a lot of my favorite filmmaker of all time Michael Mann. You may not see this comment since its such an old article but I wanted to say thank you for keeping these available for nights like these and film lovers like us.