There are worse experiences than sitting in a theater to watch writer/director Joe Carnahan's Narc, but his good cop/bad cop melodrama will play much better on the small screen, where you can pretend this is an uncensored episode of Law and Order with additional profanity and gore. Carnahan's previous film Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane could serve as the tagline for his current feature, highlighted by Ray Liotta and Jason Patric competing with each other for streetwise hipness in an essentially shallow portrayal of undercover cops.
Set in Detroit, Carnahan signals from the top that he's going to use all the MTV camera trickery at his disposal to bring his gangsta rap to the audience—the initial chase features undercover narcotics officer Nick Tellis (Patric) racing after a drug dealer in a dizzying montage of hand held flash frames. Neighbors scream as the two dash through a housing project, an innocent bystander is felled, and Tellis unbelievably blows away the bad guy on a playground without pause in spite of a small child being used as cover. Unfortunately, Tellis also hits a pregnant lady, and the camera finally slows down to show the blood flow from the poor woman.
But Tellis is the good guy, so he purifies himself in the next scene with a baptismal shower. And to make sure we understand his righteousness, Tellis holds his baby boy as he showers—a male Madonna and child. Tellis is done with undercover work—his cover is blown, and he must put the experience behind him. Of course a police investigation is necessary, providing Tellis with one of his stronger challenges to a lady without experience as an undercover agent that "doesn't know what the fuck" she's talking about. Predictably, Tellis must come back for one last time—to investigate a cop-killing case that is "operating on fumes."
That brings in Liotta as Lieutenant Henry Oak, who was the murdered undercover cop's friend—but his closeness to the situation and alleged craziness have removed him from the investigation. The overall plot isn't worth a dime bag—it feels like a collage of rejected television scripts for various crime dramas that in the end are so outrageously illogical, both real-life cops and drug dealers will wonder why this isn't considered fantasy. However, there are some individual moments that are worthwhile.
Although most of Liotta's prime moments are spent intensely shouting or coming off as the experienced street cop, he has a few private moments sitting with new partner Patric poignantly reminiscing his initial dreams and goals when he began his career. The softer Liotta comes across much more believably than the frenetic intense lunatic who gets most of the attention. The same principle is generally true of the entire movie—the tender moments ring much truer.
Another highlight lends some necessary comedy to the otherwise dark tone. Tellis and Oak question a half-naked junkie convict, whose girlfriend has mutilated his penis to the point that he needs a catheter to pee. At the end, where his hysterical girlfriend pays a call to his cell, he screams a few epithets at her and then exclaims, "I love you, baby. Fuck! That's a good woman!" More moments like this and Narc would come across like Donnie Brasco instead of a rough sketch for television melodrama.
Narc isn't the easiest film to watch—a couple vomiting scenes, one during an extended sequence with a rotting corpse in the bathtub, and numerous close-ups of bloody mugs. Besides the ugly puke factor, those many head shots of bloody Busta Rhymes need some serious reworking. I'm seeing all this blood hanging off his face, and I'm mostly thinking of the weak ass make-up that looks like stringy silly putty. Either Carnahan needs to up the ante on cosmetics or reduce the close-ups, but that's only part of the distractions. The larger issue behind this movie is figuring why it was made at all—it doesn't illuminate the world of the undercover agent or bring anything new to the table as far as the good cop/bad cop genre. Narc plays like an ordinary cop drama that appears weekly on television—not a horrible project, but not one that demands heading to the theater and paying premium prices for.