Arrow Video: Narc (2002) - Reviewed

Images courtesy of Arrow Video

The filmmaking career of writer-director Joe Carnahan is a checkered one, having directed and produced many a number of grittier tougher under-the-radar action thrillers with a tendency towards violence ala William Friedkin, John Frankenheimer or Martin Scorsese but never receiving the degree of attention or adulation those aforementioned three have.  With his works sometimes nearly going straight-to-video and/or digital platforms as was the case with both Stretch and more recently his Hulu film Boss Level, the still clandestine crime fiction auteur who has had his name attached to numerous sizable projects including but not limited to writing Bad Boys for Life still managed to keep operating without compromising his aesthete and seems to press on against ongoing setbacks.
His second feature, the Detroit, Michigan set crime drama Narc from 2002, one of his very best and most celebrated films of his career, nearly fell through the cracks.  On a tightly budgeted 27-day shoot with the two leading stars Jason Patric and Ray Liotta forfeiting their salaries to keep the project going while Lionsgate wanted to dump the film on video before Tom Cruise and his business partner Paula Wagner joined the production and secured a Paramount Pictures wide release, the film became a lucky find and a minor sleeper hit at the box office.  Taking in around $12 million against a $6 million budge, the film helped usher in the career of Joe Carnahan who soon started taking on bigger mainstream projects like Smokin’ Aces and an adaptation of the television series The A-Team.  Decades later, Arrow Video have circled back to do-up a deluxe two-disc 4K UHD limited edition of one of the defining crime films of the early 2000s including plentiful extras including but not limited to original writing from The Movie Sleuth’s very own Michelle Kisner!

In the snow-covered winter of Detroit resides narcotics cop Nick Tellis (Jason Patrick from The Lost Boys in the role of his career) is reeling from an undercover drug bust gone awry and aims for reassignment to a lowly quiet desk job.  In exchange for reassignment, he reluctantly agrees to go back to work on the streets (much to the chagrin of his wife and mother of their child at home) alongside Detective Henry Oak (Ray Liotta) in search of answers regarding the murder of Oak’s former partner who went undercover himself in the drug trade.  Tasked with keeping an eye on Oak who has a tendency to fly off of the handle with brutal handling of his suspects, their working dynamic grows steadily more fraught with tension and unease as Nick grows more suspicious of his newly assigned partner and begins to wonder whether or not Oak knows more about his partner’s death than he’s telling.

Gritty, unpretentious, direct but also labyrinthine with numerous twists and turns characteristic of the modern-day neo-noir in a film that gets the Detroit crime scene right despite much of it being shot in Toronto, Narc harkens back to the intensely personal crime-soaked character studies that defined the work of not only the aforementioned Martin Scorsese but Elia Kazan as well.  Take for instance a tense bloody exchange of fists between Patric and Liotta with Patric carrying himself with what little strength he has left to his hands and feet and one can’t help but think of Kazan’s On the Waterfront with Brando staggering to his feet after a vicious beatdown.  Another film that invariably comes to mind which beat it to the finish line by just a year is Antoine Fuqua’s Los Angeles set Training Day which also saw a nearly-paired couple of narcotics officers find themselves on opposite sides of the fence though both projects complement each other and fulfill a neglected obligation to the neo-noir crime thriller.

Lensed by Soviet, Moscow based cinematographer Alex Nepomniaschy of eventual The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel fame, the vision of Detroit is gritty with a tendency towards desaturated teal-blue ala Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, making the city feel oppressive, dangerous and vast.  The pulsating soundtrack by eventual longtime Nicolas Winding Refn collaborator Cliff Martinez perfectly suits the Mean Streets attitude of crime world navigation our two heroes lead us down.  Jason Patric has always been really underrated despite scoring a big hit with The Lost Boys and here he gives his most nuanced and understated performance, launching into strong physical acting but largely delivering buried emotions and dismay just with his eyes.  Ray Liotta was already a master of his craft at this time and having immortalized Henry Hill on film with Goodfellas it was refreshing to see him on the other side of the criminal fence this time around.

One of the most underrated and tragically overlooked crime thrillers of the early 2000s, one of the best portraits of the Detroit narcotics scene and just a damn good old fashioned cop thriller that develops into something more unexpected, Narc is an explosively intense release from Arrow Video marking perhaps one of their essential forthcoming purchases among cinephiles.  Including original electronic press kits featuring interviews with the filmmakers, cast and even director William Friedkin as well as newly filmed interviews, the disc comes mastered with both the original 2.0 stereo-surround mix and a newly created Dolby Atmos mix which puts you in the literal line of fire.  A perfect companion piece to Training Day as far as modern-day gritty cop thrillers that harken back to two decades before, the 4K UHD of Narc is a completely welcome addition to the genre and one that manages to get the city and the crime scene right.  Buy with confidence!

--Andrew Kotwicki