A modern-day film noir gussied up with all the violence and gore of the post-Tarantino generation, “Narc” may impress some with its mood of brooding despair, its twisty plot, its grimy settings, its weather-beaten characters, its bursts of violence and its stylistic flourishes. But like writer-director Joe Carnahan’s first film, the raucous, annoying shoutathon “Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane,” this one is basically an empty exercise, a florid but ultimately vapid crime melodrama with lots of surface flash but little emotional resonance.
Carnahan’s script reaches into old Hollywood territory by pairing an angst-ridden undercover cop, Nick Tellis (Jason Patric)–off the force because a stray bullet he fired during a frantic chase hit a child–with Henry Oak (Ray Liotta), an aggressive, hard-nosed detective, to solve the murder of Oak’s partner Calvess, a young narcotics operative. Tellis has been promised that his suspension will be lifted if he accepts the assignment, and though he’s haunted by his previous mistake he accepts the offer, even though Oak is the proverbial loose cannon willing to break any rule (and any door or head) to avenge his dead buddy. The investigation takes the duo deep into Detroit’s mean streets and, in the process, into the mystery behind Calvess’ demise. A major twist involves the deceased’s widow (Anne Openshaw), of whom Oak proves surpassingly protective. Meanwhile his re-immersion in a dangerous world causes tension in Nick’s marriage. Everything’s resolved in an archetypical bloody confrontation wherein all secrets are finally revealed.
Despite its contemporary setting–a bleak, wintry urban landscape that looks almost bombed-out (Toronto standing in, once more, for an American city)–“Narc” is fundamentally an old- fashioned genre piece featuring characters who, despite their rough language and raw appearance, are extremely familiar. Nick is the typical noir protagonist–grubby, haggard and worn, but with intelligence bubbling within–and Patric plays him softly, almost delicately, at a sluggish pace designed to give physical proof of his intense sadness. (There are repeated shots of him standing alone in the bitter cold, gazing grimly at the skyline–an all-too-obvious demonstration of his isolation and gloom.) Oak, by contrast, is the standard-issue rogue cop–loud, abrasive, snarly– and Liotta sinks his teeth into the role with relish. Looking considerably chunkier than usual, he chews the scenery and spits out his lines so strenuously that you might momentarily overlook the fact that he’s a walking cliche. The secondary figures are hackneyed, too: Chi McBride, the principal in “Boston Public,” for instance, is stuck with the antediluvian role of the squad captain who constantly pushes for results but has to answer to superiors, too.
If Carnahan’s script is basically a rehash, his direction is all imitative too. He resorts to every overused visual trick in the book to give a sense of urgency to the action moments (the opening chase, shot with a handheld camera and then bleached out to give it a nightmarish tone, is an obvious example, and similar episodes recur regularly throughout, especially toward the close) and slows things down to a dirge in the more intimate moments. He and cinematographer Alex Nepomnischy also make emphatic use of shadow and darkness in an effort, only sporadically successful, to mimic in washed-out color the hallucinatory look of the old black-and-white noirs. There’s really nothing new in all this, but while the result is superficially impressive, visually as well as narratively the picture breaks no new ground. Things go particularly awry in the final twenty minutes, when we’re treated to a prolonged denouement that’s drenched in blood and filled with shouted dialogue, violent confrontations and dreamily-photographed flashbacks. It’s all supposed to be wrenching but is actually so over-the-top that it invites more derision than catharsis.
Ultimately Carnahan, in this picture as well as his first one, comes across like just another Tarantino wannabe. But “Reservoir Dogs” is a decade old now, and its brand of rawness and arty brutality now seems positively quaint. The writer-director would be well-advised to stop emulating it and search for a style that’s really his own.