Friday, May 24, 2024

Cult Corner: NARC

 by Anthony King

A Neon Badges throwback.

December 20, 2002
Studios: Cruise/Wagner Productions, Splendid Pictures, Emmet/Furla Films, Tiara Blu Films, Lions Gate Films
Director: Joe Carnahan
Writers: Joe Carnahan
Cinematography: Alex Nepomniaschy
Composer: Cliff Martinez
Editors: John Gilroy
Running Time: 105 minutes

Cast: Jason Patric (Nick Tellis), Ray Liotta (Henry Oak), Krista Bridges (Audrey Tellis), Chi McBride (Captain Cheevers), Anne Openshaw (Kathryn Calvess), Busta Rhymes (Darnell 'Big D Love' Beery), Richard Chevolleau (Latroy Steeds)

2000s Neon Badges: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans (2009) Dark Blue (2002), Memories of Murder (2003), Miami Vice (2006), Training Day (2001)

Pairing recommendation: Prince of the City (1981)
As an avid connoisseur of '80s cop movies, I'm always thrilled to discover modern films that embrace the same aesthetic found in those of the '80s. Whether it's Michael Mann carrying over from his '80s films like Thief (1981) or Manhunter (1986) what he does best in his later films like Miami Vice, Collateral (2004), or Blackhat (2015), or Nicolas Winding Refn fully submerging the viewer in literal neon for most of his work, I'm constantly seeking out the wet streets reflecting blinking lights and cops fully immersed in their work, ignoring their own life and families in order to get their man.

Joe Carnahan is one of our filmmakers today who embraces that attitude of those '80s cop movies in almost all of his work. From his first film, Blood, Guts, Bullets & Octane (1998) to his latest, Copshop (2021), Carnahan is an artist who infuses crime movies of the '70s and '80s in all of his work. Narc, a relatively small picture compared to his later films, would be Carnahan's entry into the world of Hollywood filmmaking. The script for Narc began as a short film while he was in college. He got his script into the hands of Ray Liotta who, along with his wife at the time, Michelle Grace, helped gain financing, which became a struggle during production, forcing the actors to go unpaid while they were working. Liotta and Jason Patric were such fans of Carnahan and his vision, though, they agreed to keep working because they knew the movie would go somewhere.
The film opens cold with a quick shot of heroin cooking on a plate followed by a smash cut to a man running frantically through a housing project. The handheld camera is following closely, throwing the viewer straight into the scene, blurs and rattles and bumps and all. We see undercover narcotics detective Nick Tellis chasing this man, shouting at him to freeze while haphazardly shooting off rounds into nearby playgrounds. The suspect grabs a man, stabs a needle into his neck and breaks it off before running again. The injured man falls to the ground, gurgling and spitting up blood. Tellis briefly stops to check on him and continues the foot chase, ending at a playground where the suspect is holding a small child. Tellis fires at the suspect, killing him, but also hitting a pregnant lady in the process. Tellis is then seen at a conference table being interviewed by Internal Affairs. He's quit his job but is being asked to come back to investigate the murder of an undercover cop. We see him at home with his wife and baby son, contemplating this offer. The title card then appears, ten minutes into the film. Tellis is partnered with rogue detective Henry Oak, whose partner was the undercover narc who was murdered. Intrigue, paranoia, and intense drama lie ahead, equalling one of the greatest underseen and underrated cop movies of the 21st century.
Narc premiered at Sundance in 2002 and gained distribution from none other than Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner. Unfortunately, the biggest release the film ever got was 822 screens, although it still managed to pull in over $12 million on a $6 million budget. Critically speaking, Narc was a success. Elvis Mitchell of the New York Times gave the film three-and-a-half out of five stars. “Joe Carnahan has made a believable, fleshed-out film where man's worst impulses lead to their ruin. He's considerably more measured about the doses of adrenaline administered in Narc, and we're rewarded with a cohesive and mostly coherent story of a guilt-ridden cop who has nowhere to turn.” Peter Travers of Rolling Stone gave the film three out of four stars calling it a “compulsively watchable police thriller.” Roger Ebert also gave the film three out of four stars. “Joe Carnahan, brings a rough, aggressive energy to the picture... His screenplay stays within the broad outlines of the cop-buddy formula, but brings fresh energy to the obligatory elements.” The highest praise, though, came from Carnahan's hero, William Friedkin. He called Narc “the most honest film about police procedure I've ever seen... This film will last because of its performances... Few American films carry the weight that Narc does.”
Carnahan was able to take a masterpiece like Friedkin's The French Connection (1971) and, while giving it a late-20th century-early-21st century update, completely enfolded his vision into that palpable feeling of a '70s cop thriller. From unsavory but completely likable lead characters (thanks in large part to the performances of Patric and Liotta), to the gritty and arctic setting of Detroit (via Toronto), few films that have followed Narc even come close to the intensity felt in its 105 minutes.

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