Nick Tellis (Jason Patric), an undercover officer suspended after a botched drug bust left a pregnant woman dead, is lured back to duty on the Detroit Police Force to help vet officer Henry Oak (Ray Liotta) after his rookie partner is murdered. Oak is a tough-as-nails homicide detective with an enviable record of convictions but he needs the streetwise Tellis to infiltrate the drug world his partner had also inhabited. He agrees, and then must deal with marital pressures since his wife is seething that he has returned to dangerous work on the street. Tellis' sleuthing discovers the rookie's wife Katherine (Anne Openshaw) isn't everything she seems, a pathetic addict who puts Tellis on the path of two key suspects. A startling denouement, with Tellis battling the two dealers at their grubby chop shop and confronting the less-than-forthcoming Oak, reveals surprising relationships and an unexpected dimension to Oak's dead partner.
Narc is remarkably rich in strong performances, from leads and supporting actors alike. Both Patric as the tortured, morally bound Tellis and Liotta as the determined and cryptic Oak deserve Oscar noms for their compelling, measured, all-too-convincing performances. The remainder of the cast, including Busta Rhymes and Chi McBride as the vicious, drug-dealing suspects, is dead-on in their lesser but totally convincing roles.
Filmmaker Joe Carnahan, who made a little splash with his micro-indie Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane a few years ago, triumphs here with his first big-budget effort. Moving into the mainstream with amazing ferocity, skill and confidence, Carnahan shows a remarkable awareness of the grammar of film and the importance of performance. The style Carnahan applies--fast, furious, heated, steeped in the steely blues and grays of urban wastelands--perfectly suits his story but never gets in the way of his characters and their dilemmas. Adapting his screenplay from a 30-minute version of Narc, which in turn was inspired by the acclaimed documentary The Thin Blue Line, Carnahan also delivers a perfectly crafted script that allows his actors to triumph.
This no-holds-barred, in-the-trenches exposé of the ugly side of police work marks a stunning debut for filmmaker Joe Carnahan and provides Jason Patric and Ray Liotta with arguably the most complex roles of their careers. The unlikeliest of holiday flicks, this remarkably assured debut studio feature for Carnahan raises the cop drama far above cliché as it delivers great style and Oscar-caliber performances. If Narc, a nominee for Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and Special Policier Award winner at the Cognac Film Festival, can get past the holiday clutter and attract audiences, watch for nominations to follow.