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Narc Reviews

Familiar story, electrifying execution. Disgraced Detroit narcotics cop Nick Tellis (Jason Patric) is working deep undercover when a bust goes bad and he accidentally shoots a pregnant bystander. The subsequent departmental investigation reveals that while fraternizing with junkies and dealers, Tellis picked up a nasty drug habit. He's unceremoniously suspended and spends 18 months cleaning up, rebuilding his sorely stressed marriage, immersing himself in first-time fatherhood and trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life. Then he's offered a chance for reinstatement — the department will even guarantee a desk job safely out of harm's (and temptation's) way if Tellis will apply his street smarts to the recent murder of fellow undercover cop Michael Calvess (Alan Van Sprang). He must also work with Calvess's partner, veteran detective Henry Oak (Ray Liotta), an old-school proponent of brass-knuckle policing. Oak doesn't trust Tellis, and Tellis doesn't much care for Oak, but they share a common goal, and the inevitable grudging friendship develops over hours of chilly stakeouts and interrogating lowlifes. That fledgling bond is sorely tested when Tellis assembles the evidence and realizes it doesn't add up — Calvess wasn't the model cop he's been made out to be, and Oak clearly knows more than he's telling. Writer-director Joe Carnahan's second feature was, he says, inspired by Errol Morris's deeply subjective documentary THE THIN BLUE LINE (1988), about the fatal shooting of a Dallas police officer in 1976. Carnahan was evidently less influenced by the facts of the case than Morris's brilliant account of his own attempts to wrest a definitive version of events from a thicket of contradictory reports, visualized in a RASHOMON (1950)-like series of conflicting flashbacks. But NARC also owes a powerful debt of tone and style to bitter, '70s police thrillers like REPORT TO THE COMMISSIONER (1975). The movie's shattered, chilly look embodies the bleak brutality and casual corruption of Tellis's crumbling world: Color bled out to post-mortum grays and blues, shivering camera, editing that stutters and lurches. Tellis isn't hip or fatalistic about the thin line between cops and criminals: He's dismayed to find evidence of a cover-up and shocked that Calvess burrowed so deep into his scummy cover that he wound up strung out and morally compromised — even though the same thing happened to Tellis himself. In an era of pre-packaged cynicism, Carnahan's old-fashioned sense of outrage makes his film feel fresh.