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Home » Culture and Criticism

Narc and the art of stillness

Submitted by on April 10, 2012 – 12:40 PM4 Comments

I kind of liked Smokin' Aces, the Joe Carnahan feature that followed Narc with a real more-than-ten-days'-worth budget and some actual names. A number of critics blew off the effort as Tarantinoid, derivative, shallow — and it had its overcaffeinated faults, but I disagreed with the charges of insincerity. Carnahan does have a jumpiness to his narratives that you could interpret as gore-hounding or cheap pastiche, but I like the energy, and the flexibility of his tone. The subtitle of either of those features could be ": Boys DO Cry (And Yell A Lot And Shoot Guns What Can I Say We're Complicated)."

So, I went into Narc expecting that bizarre, occasionally beautiful and/but highly distractible energy, but scaled smaller and with less nuance. That's more or less what I got — since Narc is both more than Smokin' Aces (more annoying; more out of sync with its own arc; more shouty) and less (less well-acted; less in love with uninteresting character sketches; less maudlin).

Nick Tellis (Jason Patric) has retired (or been forced out of) the Detroit police department after a confusing chase during an undercover op led to a pregnant woman getting shot. He spends his days as a SAHD now, which involves a lot more standing in the shower with the baby and staring PTSD-ishly through a curtain of water than I'd have assumed offhand. But another undercover gets executed, and DPD needs to close the case for good, so Tellis is hauled out of dry dock and teamed with the volatile Lt. Henry Oak (Ray Liotta), the slain detective's CO, who feels responsible for his death. And may be.

The film is, in more than a few ways, just not good. The acting is partly to blame; Liotta is straight-up amazing, carrying the whole script on his back at times. Patric is…Patric. Jason Patric is very good at 1) stricken/absent staring and 2) wrapping his hairy hands intensely into the nape hair of his leading ladies, and he's had the good fortune of getting cast as characters who do those things a lot. Fuckably honorable humorlessness is, however, not acting — and the last third of the script is not a job for slow, measured blinking. It is a series of non-credible exposition dumps, paced amateurishly and liberally bespittled, with a lot of yelling and eye-bugging, and Liotta and Busta Rhymes do their best to sell it, but then there's always that cut back to Patric.

It's not his fault; the script does have the trademark Carnahan fizz, but it also has self-indulgent faux-Mametisms in the dialogue, Krista "The Poor Man's Famke" Bridges as Disapproving Cop Wife #336 (I Can't Go Through X Again), and an interminable stakeout speech by Oak about his late wife that gives Patric a legitimate reason to look bored for once.

But it also has some neat bits, like the relentlessly blue palette that dulls out the lead actors' trademark baby blues. At one point, Tellis gets frustrated and shovels everything off his worktable and onto the floor — and Carnahan niftily subverts the clichĂ© right away when Tellis is like, "Not, now I have to pick up all this crap," and starts gathering it all up and turning papers the right way, which is what would actually happen in life. And the final twist holds, somehow. I went back over it, and thanks to Liotta never cheating it, it works.

I didn't see The Grey, Carnahan's last feature, but I wonder what he'd do with something a little smaller — fewer guns and bears and swinging dicks. I like all those things fine, especially together, but sometimes it works counter to his gift with the micro. I'd love him to write a heist picture, nothing too epic, the behind-the-scenes kind of stuff, and get Fincher to direct it. Fincher is really great at teasing out the texture of how people who work together speak to one another, and he'd likely kibosh the monologues Carnahan can't always resist. Hope it happens. As for Narc, you needn't pay to watch it, but it's a fine performance from Liotta and the last good one with his old face.

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  • MinglesMommy says:

    *blergh* Jason Patric. Always so sour, so "I am a serious actor."

    What DID happen to Ray Liotta's face??

  • Carrie Ann says:

    I saw this a few years ago when it played Sundance, and I really liked it then. I even stayed after the Q&A to tell Joe Carnahan that, which was a pretty nerdy thing to do, but he was really nice and seemed sort of gobsmacked by the whole experience. It was a rough year at Sundance, so that probably skewed my vision of it. I ordered the ticket mainly for Liotta, and I was not disappointed. I miss his old face, and I miss him in general. Someone cast him on a decent TV show.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Didn't Patric play this exact same role in that movie with Jennifer Jason Leigh or am I thinking of a different guy?

  • Matt says:

    John Ortiz' scene as the crackhead is great, too. I like to watch this every once in a while when I'm feeling a little down, and can fast forward through the less exciting stuff.

    Carnahan also directed one of those BMW short films a few years ago, with Clive Owen driving spiritedly in a Z4 convertible. Carnahan's little film had a huge cast, with Don Cheadle, F Murray Abraham, Ray Liotta again, and Robert Patrick. The whole series is fun, but Carnahan's, along with John Woo's is a lot of fun to watch. Tony Scott's is just silly, but it does have Danny Trejo and Gary Oldman as the Devil…

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