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At this exceedingly late date, a young filmmaker looking to make his name with a gritty cop procedural not only has his work cut out for him, he's likely doomed to heavy scrutiny and probable obscurity. After all, it's been over 50 years since Jack Webb popularized the genre on television with "Dragnet," and another 30 years since William Friedkin strapped an Arriflex camera to the hood of a car and hurtled through real Upper West Side traffic to energize the form with a mean street-level credibility in his classic The French Connection. And then there's the socially conscious police corruption melodramas of Sidney Lumet, which invented a whole new moralist aesthetic that spawned the televised likes of "Hill Street Blues," "Law & Order," and (best of all) "Homicide: Life on the Street." It would take a precociously talented director indeed to invigorate this well-worn genre, and its nearly unavoidable collection of stock moments, with something even remotely original or noteworthy.

Credit helmer Joe Carnahan, then, for briefly wiping away the memory of all his predecessors' glory by opening his sophomore film, Narc (2003), with one wildly frenetic foot-chase. Shot by a sprinting hand-held camera operator, and broken up with a few cleverly hidden cuts, the scene gives the audience the breathless feeling of trying to keep up with gun-wielding narcotics Det. Nick Tellis (Jason Patric) as he struggles to keep pace with a maniacal, fleeing perp who's armed with a handful of syringes — and is not shy about jamming them into the neck of hapless bystanders. By the time the sequence reaches the tragic conclusion that will irrevocably scar Tellis both professionally and emotionally, there's a sense not only of having seen something entirely new on the screen, but also a willingness to follow this crazy sumbitch director wherever he plans on going next. It's a brilliant ploy by Carnahan as well, since where he's headed is somewhere that should be entirely familiar to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the genre. Eighteen months after this incident, Tellis is before a review panel that's dangling the possibility of reassignment to the peaceful desk job he craves, provided that he re-up to help the department close out a stalled case involving the murder of a fellow undercover detective, Michael Calvess, by a couple of drug dealers. Though his wife objects, Tellis takes the gig, which partners him with the slain detective's mentor, Lt. Henry Oak (Ray Liotta), a brutally efficient veteran officer who operates like a pre-Miranda Popeye Doyle. Since both have such intensely personal issues tied up in the case, they make for a very combustible pairing, particularly as Tellis begins to identify with Calvess's submission to the more self-destructive perils of the undercover life (i.e. drug addiction). Combined with the nagging inconsistencies hampering their investigation, Tellis is compelled to dig more deeply into Calvess's family life, which draws the wrath of the overly protective Oak — a man who may be covering up some crucial evidence damning to his murdered friend.

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On the page, Narc is not only thoroughly unexceptional (save for Carnahan's solid ear for dialogue), it's also structurally unbalanced, heavily favoring the revelation portion to what should be detrimental effect. But Carnahan so expertly immerses the audience in the desolate world of these two detectives that the film works sensationally as a character study, even when its narrative is splitting apart at the seams. A large part of this is due to Patric and Liotta — two of the most underutilized actors working today — being given psychologically complex roles, as well as generous space in which to explore every facet of these characters' inner lives. As a result, both give performances as good as anything we've seen from them. Liotta's explosive Oak is certainly the flashiest of the two, lashing out violently at the merest hint of disrespect from a recalcitrant perp. Padded out with a newfound bulk and sporting a thick goatee, Liotta simply disappears into the role, locating the dark rage of his Ray Sinclair character from Something Wild, and offsetting it with the gentler shadings of his work in Field of Dreams. Patric, on the other hand, imbues Tellis with that quietly tortured soulfulness seen in so many of his brilliant, though sadly unheralded, turns over the last two decades. To watch Patric at his best is to observe one of the most uniquely gifted film actors of his generation — few understand the virtues of understatement better. Also contributing an invaluable third character to this moody tableau is composer Cliff Martinez, whose emotionally intuitive score effectively underplays off of the actors.

Paramount presents Narc in a fine anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras include a very entertaining commentary by Carnahan and editor John Gilroy in which the boys cheerfully recount the many expected joys and agonies that are part-and-parcel of independent filmmaking. Carnahan proves to be great, self-deprecating company; he's particularly endearing for the way he'll mount a very eloquent defense of certain shots and their thematic importance to the film, only to embarrassingly chide himself a moment later for being pretentious (it just doesn't sound manly to wax thoughtful about mise en scene). Carnahan also isn't shy about sharing the credit with his collaborators, or copping to incredibly fortuitous strokes of luck. Also included on the disc is an EPK-quality behind-the-scenes doc inexplicably broken up into three separate featurettes ("Making the Deal," "Shooting Up," and "The Visual Trip"), and a seal-of-approval interview with William Friedkin, which seems like less of a coup when one realizes that the director is married to Paramount's production chief Sherry Lansing. Still, it's nice to see the director praising not only Carnahan, but many of today's young filmmakers whose work he admires. Rounding out the disc is a collection of trailers for other Paramount films. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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