There are few better ways to start a movie than by giving the audience a good slap in the face. Yes, it's rude, and yes, it'll offend a few people, but it sure gets their attention. And writer/director Joe Carnahan will definitely snare your concentration with Narc's opening sequence - a sweaty, gasping, hand-held sprint through a rundown Detroit ghetto, one man with a gun chasing another armed with a syringe. It'd be too plot-spoily to say exactly how that needle is wielded, but be assured that, by the time the hunter reaches his quarry, Narc will have you horrifyingly hooked. And don't worry - it doesn't trail off after that. In fact, for the rest of the movie, Carnahan switches from face slaps to gut punches. And boy, does he keep them coming.
Carnahan made his debut with the little-seen 1998 flick Blood, Guts, Bullets&Octane, a sloppy-but-flashy Tarantino rip-off that barely blipped on anyone's radar. With Narc, adapted from his own short Gun Point (which itself was based on 1976 police documentary The Thin Blue Line), the Blood, Guts helmer has clearly grown up. He's also clearly been watching too many '70s cop movies and reading too many James Ellroy novels. Its wintry backdrop and gritty atmosphere snitch Narc out as an obvious homage to the likes of Serpico and The French Connection, while Carnahan proudly brandishes a well-thumbed book of cine-tricks, jump-cutting here, flicking to an over-saturated flashback there...
But so what? It works, and is backed up by a skintight plot, a snappy script and a duo of brutal performances from Jason Patric and former GoodFellas star Ray Liotta (who also, admirably, yanked the project off the ground). Patric plays ex-undercover narco Nick Tellis, who's suspended for the accidental death of a civilian until he's offered a get-out clause: solve the murder of a fellow undercover cop and receive the assignment of your choice. Liotta is his partner, homicide detective Henry Oak, a man with a personal stake in the investigation: the dead officer used to be his partner and they'd been friends.
Tellis is measured and methodical, although he remains highly strung and jittery; Oak is ursine and apoplectic, a celebrated cop who is blinded by rage. Both, psychologically speaking, are the walking wounded, yet they're dragging each other into the lion's den. It's a two-man show and Liotta and Patric form a praiseworthy double act, especially during the extended final scene, where the friction between them results in a constant, cascading shower of sparks.
Carnahan may occasionally lapse into cliché (Tellis' whiny, characterless wife is a knuckle-in-the-spine niggle) but he's not trying to reinvent a genre here. Anyone who likes their cop flicks savage will be a glutton for the punishment Narc dishes out.