With this highly hyped new policier, writer/director Joe Carnahan seeks to recombine a working-class psych study, mental melt-down anti-buddy film, dissection-in-miniature of the absurdist War on Drugs, and a life-sucks-then-you-die nihilist tract. Cranked on its ambitions, Narc does end up resembling an amphetamine-injected update on Sidney Lumet's classic '70s urban-hell studies. Unfortunately, amid the high-decibel hubbub of Jason Patric and Ray Liotta's thespic Sturm und Drang and Carnahan's way-shaky-cam-style spasms, the film forgets to have a third act.
Lumet, of course, is underlauded for gritty urban morality plays such as Dog Day Afternoon and Prince of the City, films that ironically limned their subtle ethical conundrums via the constant screaming of highly strung men. And, if nothing else, Narc boasts the most vigorous male caterwauls in the last 10 years.
The screaming starts in the first frames, as beyond-burned-out ex-junkie dope detective Nick Tellis (Patric) chases a scumbag through the near-apocalyptic-looking rubble that passes for Detroit these days. He ends up accidentally shooting a pregnant woman and howling to the moon in remorse.
Because of assorted political/plot reasons, Tellis isn't thrown off the force but teamed with moody pit bull enforcer Lt. Oak (Liotta). In what could be construed as a sly meta riff, Tellis (essentially the same character Patric essayed in Rush) takes on the assignment because he's addicted to the buzz of high-risk crime-busting.
What Oak wants is revenge for the death of his best cop friend. The rest of Narc is pretty much a Motor City Rashomon; Tellis and Oak bust assorted drug dealers' heads as we get assorted takes on just how Oak's buddy died. The truth's revelation is meant to be devastating but is simply bleakly abrupt, leaving multiple plot strands wafting forlornly and unanswered in the hypothetical breeze.
What's terrific about Narc is exemplified in a quietly affecting sequence where Carnahan quits with the fancy camera work and allows Liotta/Oak to enact a wonderfully written monologue of despair that builds to inchoate rage, neatly justifying the character's hard-boiled pragmatism. And Patric's frenzied last-reel face off with a dealer (Busta Rhymes) seethes with tweaked machismo and shifting racial implication. There's enough evidence in Narc to indicate that Carnahan will learn from such fine underwriting and, should he decide to revisit similar territory, one day make a film that does the Lumet tradition proud.