Narc is trying to be something. Really hard. It’s obvious. The question is: What is it trying to be?
At first you think that it’s trying to be a story about redemption. We meet ex-undercover narcotics officer Nick Tellis (Jason Patric). He needs redemption because he got kicked off the force eighteen months ago after an incident in which — while frenziedly trying to save a child from the clutches of a homicidal dope addict — he accidentally shot a pregnant woman, causing her to lose her unborn child. We also later learn that after the incident the stress apparently drove him into some kind of drug use and, though it put his wife (Krista Bridges) through emotional hell, she stood by him through detox and helped him get back on his feet.
After raking him over the coals about the accidental shooting incident (which makes the point that unborn children are important), a group of police department Suits offer him a chance at redemption: If he can use his connections on The Street to solve the murder of another undercover cop, they’ll reinstate him to active duty and give him the assignment of his choice.
Tellis isn’t interested. He’s honked off at The Suits for the grilling they’ve given him, and he doesn’t want to work as an undercover cop any more. What he really wants to do is have a happy family life with his wife and baby. The trouble is, he can’t make ends meet in his current, unemployed condition.
He’s slowly drawn into the assignment, though he isn’t clear with himself on what his motives are. It’s part paycheck. Part the fact that he can get a cushy desk job since he’ll be able to name his assignment. And it’s part the fact that he identifies with the dead cop, who had a wife and kids of his own. This makes Tellis a kind of morally ambivalent hero who is just ripe for redemption.
But the film doesn’t seem to be a redemption story. He loyally plays the hand of cards that he’s dealt, but in the end there’s no resolution on any of these threads. Instead, the climax of the film is concerned with the movie’s MacGuffin, that is, the thing the characters are interested in, but not what the audience is interested in, which is the characters themselves and their struggles. That’s not much of a redemption.
For a time you think that the film is trying to be a cautionary tale — two hours spent in two worlds that you’re glad not to inhabit: the world of drug users and the world of the undercover cops that chase them. But the film never shows or implies any other world, any alternative to the gritty depiction of The Street and The System and the injustice and brutality that they contain. For a brief moment, The Family seems to be such a world, until Tellis’s family walks out on him while he is pursuing truth and justice. No, no refuge is to be sought there.
Maybe the film is trying to be a dark comedy. This seems suggested when we have to scenes in which Tellis and his new partner encounter two drug users who have met unfortunate ends. Both are played for comic effect, despite the fact that one has just abused his girlfriend, who gave him a painful venereal disease, and the other has accidentally killed himself by trying to smoke dope through a gun, without even checking to see if it was loaded first. Despite the attempt at humor, one can view these scenes with little more than loathing, especially when one realizes that the offensive elements are simply gratuitous, superfluous to the plot. And then the dark comedy element is dropped almost as soon as it enters the film.
For a time you think that the film is trying to be a gritty, neo-noir buddy picture — two little guys against both The Street and The System. As he begins to investigate the murdered cop’s death, Tellis discovers that most of the investigative work has been done by a single officer, Henry Oak (Ray Liotta). Why isn’t Oak still handling the investigation? Because The Suits have kicked him off the case on the grounds that he was too close to the murdered cop and is emotionally unstable. His work even on other cases is affected, and it’s only a matter of time until he loses his career on account of a complaint of improper behavior.
Yet Tellis insists that he is brought back on the case, and gets his way. The two at first don’t trust each other, but with time they at least seem to form a partnership. It is at this point that it begins to look like a “two little guys against The System” picture. There certainly aren’t any institutions that the film depicts as worthy of trust. And Tellis and Oak are both convinced that they’re on the trail of the real killers and are willing to pursue the matter even when The Suits have someone that they think can be made to take the fall for the dead cop’s murder.
The Suits are painted in a most unsympathetic light. They arrogantly and corpulently strut around in their Suits, waving fingers and spouting pretentious lines of dialogue like “It still denotes illicit criminal activity.” (Is there some other kind of criminal activity?) Against the Suit Establishment, Tellis and Oak for a moment seem to stand out as two, obsessed truth-seekers, determined to find the murdered cop’s killers, no matter the cost.
It is around this point that one begins to think that the film actually is just trying to be a conglomeration of clichés: The cop in need of redemption. The lack of understanding he gets from his wife. The lack of understanding he gets from his superiors. The unassailable “whoever murders a cop must be caught” ethic.
Don’t get me wrong. I think that fallen cops should have a chance at redemption. I think that they should get understanding from their wives and superiors. I think that cop killers should be identified and escorted out of this life as quickly as due process of law will allow. It’s just that we’ve seen these same things, and so many times before that this particular film starts to drag. One begins to wonder: Does this film want to be anything more than a gritty rehash of standard themes?
Actually, it does.
The last third of the film starts to reach beyond the realm of cliché, and it starts to get
really interesting. This is the only thing that provides the film itself with any measure of redemption. While the level of brutality and cussing goes way up, the film is finally starting to pay off some of the half-seen, rapid-fire clues that have been dropped before. It’s unfortunate that when we finally start getting answers, they are piled up so quickly, in the form of angry shouts, amid a stream of half-true conjecture, that the audience has trouble discerning exactly what they are being told.
Now, in the movie’s final minutes, we realize that the film may be trying to be Rashomon — the classic Kurosawa film in which the truth is elusive, something that can only be determined by comparing alternate versions of what happened, given by people with different and morally opposed perspectives.
What are we left with?
While it seems that we are given a final, probably-reliable version of the dead cop’s murder, there is no clear vindication of moral principle, no clear resolution to many of the plot threads, not even a clear message that the film is trying to express. If there is any message to the film, it may simply be “The Street and The System will chew you up and spit you out.”
That’s not enough.
That’s a portrait of a universe without hope, and I don’t care how much one has been kicked around by life, there’s always hope.
Admittedly, there is some artistry to the film. The direction and editing in particular is interesting and creative. The writing also is inventive, though there are clichéd, clunker lines of dialogue, as when Tellis’s wife declares: “I love you with everything I am… and I am still leaving.”
Ultimately, one is presented with a film that doesn’t live up to what it aspires to be — right up to its final, enigmatic image, which promises to tell you more than it actually does. When the film finally fades to black, the audience is left hanging, wondering, “So now what? Will there be an epilogue that ties all the loose threads together?” No. The credits start rolling.
To bend a few lines from Yeats, Narc doesn’t turn out to be more than slouching toward cleverness. Things fall apart. The center cannot hold.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.