A pair of warnings: I’ll be using Narc language throughout this post, which means it’ll be a bit rougher than usual, and there are spoilers.
1) Joe fuckin’ Carnahan. Narc is the first film from Carnahan, who also directed Smokin’ Aces and is an executive producer on NBC’s Blacklist. It’s always troubling when directors keep re-making the same films. At first glimpse, that appears to be what Carnahan does from Narc to Smokin’ Aces, a pair of crime dramas. But that’s just the first glimpse. Smokin’ Aces is hilariously over-the-top, a mix of wild, Guy Ritchie-esque characters, a misleading story and bullets by the ton. Narc is the opposite: The bullets are sparse, the performances more realistic and the story much darker and even-tempoed. Smokin’ Aces is your high school graduation party blowout with loud music, louder party goers and a couple of kegs; Narc is the first time you invite your buddies over to hide behind the furnace in the basement and smoke a joint. It’s a tribute to Carnahan’s ability to craft a great story, as well as get the most out of his actors in any project.
2) Motherfuckin’ Detroit. I love it when a movie and its setting are so thoroughly entwined. The story of cops trying not to succumb to the hopelessness around them set in America’s dwindling automotive capital was a bold stroke. If there’s anything I’m most tired of in movies, it is stories set in Miami, LA and New York simply because they are Miami, LA and New York. They’ve been done to death. Narc doesn’t work like it does if it’s not set in Detroit, all blue and gray hues, crumbling neighborhoods and infrastructure, a very middle-American desire for simple justice when whether or not justice could be achieved in the most ideal situation is in doubt.
3) Ray fuckin’ Liotta. I’d never say Liotta is an actor who can elevate an average production into a great production (see Revolver). He’s not that guy. But give him a good script and a director with vision, and Liotta is Michael fuckin’ Jordan (or, maybe to stick with the whole Detroit thing, Isiah fuckin’ Thomas). Liotta’s Henry Oak initially comes off like just another out-of-control cop who, after decades on the job, it’s starting to come apart at the seams. He’s almost a cliché. But as the story plays out, we start to realize what a passionate, loving guys Oaks is, how that drives him, how it’s the singular greatest thing about his character … and that it may end up being his downfall. Liotta is masterful, never over-playing his hand or revealing his end game, veering back and forth emotionally but never over-emoting. It’s awesome to behold.
4) Jason fuckin’ Patric. Every time I see this guy, he’s on. Every. Single. Time. But I don’t see Patric in many things, which makes little sense to me. Here, as a cop trying to find justice for a murdered narcotics agent, Patric is sublime. His emotional control is amazing – particularly in the scenes with his baby and wife, played ably by Krista Bridges – and when his Nick Tellis and Liotta’s Henry Oak finally have it out, it’s acting nirvana.
5) Let’s hear it for the fuckin’ ladies. Narc fails the Bechdel test, big time. But this isn’t a Michael Mann or Martin Scorcese film, where the women on-screen are generally of little importance and poorly thought out as characters. On the contrary, the relationships between our two main characters, Nick and Henry, and the women around them drive this story. Nick’s fairly newly married with a son when he returns to undercover work, and it does not make his wife happy. Henry idolizes his wife, who passed due to cancer years before. And the marriage of the murdered cop, Michael Calvess, and his wife, Kathryn, is central to the movie. The women aren’t shown much, but their shadows darken the entire proceedings. Carnahan also deserves credit for his direction, particularly during the disintegration of Nick’s marriage. At first, Nick and his wife are a very physical couple, touchy-feely for lack of a better term. As the movie progresses and marriage degrades, the physical distance, that lack of touching, plays out subtlety and effectively, mirroring the downward spiral of their relationship.