[Screen It]

(2002) (Jason Patric, Ray Liotta) (R)

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Drama: A former undercover narcotics detective returns to active duty and joins a hard-nosed cop to help solve a fellow undercover cop's murder.
It's been 18 months since Sgt. Nick Tellis (JASON PATRIC) worked as an undercover narcotics detective. His last operation resulted in tragedy, but the forces that be, including Captain Cheevers (CHI McBRIDE), want him to use his still intact contacts to solve the murder of fellow undercover cop, Michael Calvess (ALAN VAN SPRANG).

Nick is initially reluctant, and his wife, Audrey (KRISTA BRIDGES), isn't pleased at all by his thoughts of returning to active duty. Nevertheless, he's drawn back in and partnered with detective. Lt. Henry Oak (RAY LIOTTA), Calvess' former partner who's known as a bit of a loose cannon.

The two begin working Nick's various contacts, hoping that someone knows something about Calves and his murder. That eventually leads them to thugs Beery (BUSTA RHYMES) and Steeds (RICHARD CHEVOLLEAU) who appear to have information about the murder. Yet, as Henry proceeds in trying to beat it out of them, they instill doubts in Nick's mind about their guilt as well as Henry's integrity. When push comes to shove, Nick must figure out who to believe as he tries to solve the case.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Movies featuring or about cops have been around forever. Yet, those that were made back during a more restrained day and age weren't exactly noted for their realism. In fact, when looking back at many such pictures, one is nearly apt to describe them as polite or even quaint.

The less restrictive filmmaking of the late '60 and '70s, however, ushered in a new form of storytelling. Language became coarse, violence bloodier and more graphic, drugs and drug use became prevalent, and the "good guys" didn't always turn out to be good after all. Over the years, the cop drama became so gritty, raw and edgy that it became something of a cliché and joke. As a result, the "realistic" portrayal lost most of its earlier shock value and became rather mundane.

Apparently undeterred by that, writer/director Joe Carnahan ("Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane") has returned to that earlier style in his cop drama, "Narc." Loosely based on a real-life cop killing that inspired the documentary, "The Thin Blue Line," the film has the look and feel of those genre pics of yesteryear, a point helped by a certain timelessness that it has about it.

It also has a heavy dose of familiarity through which it tries to wade and that is present from the top to the bottom of the production. For starters, about a gazillion movies and TV shows have covered this same ground countless times before, and this one doesn't really do anything new with the material.

There's the vindictive, loose-cannon of a cop who wants to avenge his partner's murder but is questionable himself due to his actions and words. He's partnered with the reluctant detective who's still scarred from a past traumatic incident while undercover and has a wife who's scared and angry that he's back on the beat.

Together, the two cops pursue clues and suspects that might lead them to the killer and/or truth, all while we see varying flashbacks of the pivotal incident in "Rashomon" style. While the outcome isn't a certainty, the path the film follows is well worn and some viewers may bring up the "been there, seen that" complaint.

It doesn't help matters that we've seen the two lead actors playing their respective sorts of roles before. Jason Patric ("Your Friends & Neighbors," "Speed 2: Cruise Control") did the "in too deep" narcotics bit back in "Rush," while Ray Liotta ("Blow," "Heartbreakers") has embodied the angry, overzealous and seemingly dangerous cop persona in "John Q," "Cop Land" and "Unlawful Entry."

All of that said, they and Carnahan manage to make their characters and the story compelling and mostly engaging. The on-the-mark performances and insightful dialogue certainly help overcome or at least compensate for the overriding familiarity. Overall, the cast and crew bring a certain palpable credibility and raw edginess to the characters and thus the film.

The same held true with last year's "Training Day." Like that film, this one features performances that seem real enough to make one take note. While that effort definitely had a contemporary feel, Carnahan, cinematographer Alex Nepomniaschy ("Never Been Kissed," "Mrs. Winterbourne") and the rest of the production crew have infused this film with a gritty look and aura. Not only does that get under the viewer's skin, but it's also obviously something of homage or at least a throwback to similar films from several decades back.

Nothing particularly special or memorable - even the "surprise" at the end isn't especially surprising - the film competently tells it tale. With strong performances and direction, "Narc" isn't as flashy as "Training Day" and doesn't feature a performance quite as over-the-top and flamboyant as Denzel Washington's, but it does manage to get the job done. The film rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed October 31, 2002 / Posted January 10, 2003

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