Straining Day

Narc desperately struggles to prove its grit

"Cops die daily and they die bad," barks manic police Lieutenant Henry Oak (Ray Liotta) to undercover narcotics officer Nick Tellis (Jason Patric), revealing both his hardened 'tude and a little confusion when it comes to adverbs. Welcome to Narc, Paramount Pictures' bid for a gritty, post-Training Day dirty-cop thriller, a passable exercise in the form but mainly just a competition between Liotta and Patric to see who can shriek the most street-isms per second.

In keeping with the warmed-over gangsta dialogue, the essence of Narc is that fuckers keep fucking up each other's fucking shit until every fucking thing gets all fucking fucked up. To deliver this concept, dewy and derivative writer-director Joe Carnahan (Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane) exploits every dose of obnoxious stylistic wankery at his disposal, including loads of redundant flash-frames stuck like Post-it notes throughout a sloppy first-draft screenplay. Authenticity and plausibility get gunned down from the get-go, but if explosive shaky-cam ultraviolence and frequent extreme close-ups of greasy whiskers are your bag, this hyperactive wanna-be may count as something of a score.

The movie kicks off with a blood bath as Tellis endeavors to, you know, bag a perp. Cop and criminal dash through a generic 'hood, a lady screams in Spanish, shots are exchanged, a bystander goes down, and then, to save a child, Tellis blows away the baddie on a playground. Unfortunately for everyone, he also bags a pregnant woman, killing her unborn child. To re-hook female audiences, we quickly observe sensitive Tellis in the shower with his own baby, then male audiences are efficiently re-hooked via a random sportscaster on the soundtrack. A year and a half has passed, and the undercover narc's unexpected early retirement isn't sitting well with him or his unspeakably boring wife, Audrey (Krista Bridges, whom you'd think would make more interesting choices after The Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy).

The solution, of course, is that street-smart recovering junkie Tellis must take on – wait for it! – one last dangerous job before his supervisor, Captain Cheevers (Chi McBride, groaning his way through), will grant him a cushy desk job. A somewhat dirtier cop named Calvess (Alan Van Sprang) has been gunned down in the line of . . . er . . . "duty," so Tellis teams up with dodgy, excessively aggressive Oak to find out who did the whacking. This basically equals the partners shooting and shouting through a pulpy fantasy Detroit, intercut with them feeling, you know, all fucked up and shit.

It's worth mentioning that Tom Cruise executive-produced Narc, as he would have been good in the Jason Patric role a few years ago, back when he still had to prove his royalty. No offense to Patric – he knows how to work the Serpico groove – but the whole project feels like a hand-me-down, a collection of crime-genre riffs good enough to give away, but simply not good enough to keep for oneself. For example, fledgling screenwriters, it is not always necessary to name your protagonist "Nick." Composers, you needn't ape the chilly synths of Eric Serra (Léon: The Professional). And Mr. Liotta, when your onscreen partner is shot at close range and you are told to inquire, "You all right?" please argue with the director. It's laughable.

Fortunately, although the plot of Narc ain't worth a hill of dope, some of the filler scenes impart an agreeable buzz. As if to make up for the outrageous "coincidence" in Training Day, there's a dramatic bathtub scene – subtract squirming Ethan Hawke, add overripe corpse of moronic ganja farmer. (It's one of Patric's two puking scenes, in which he appears to vomit fresh baby poop; and who wouldn't?) Later, the movie peaks when Oak and Tellis interrogate a mostly naked junkie who's recently set fire to his insane girlfriend. After the punk assaults her with a slew of pet-names – the nicest of which is "puta sucia" – he cracks and bellows, "I-I-I love you, baby! Fuck! That's a good woman!" Ugly, hilarious and moving, it's a rare engaging moment.

Otherwise, Narc is just its own derivative movie poster writ large – moody, mean and gritty, sure, but also obvious and uninspired to the point of distraction. (I started daydreaming about pudgy Liotta starring against Steven Seagal in a hardass actioner called The Pasta Job.) To its credit, the slick, energetic movie contains moments of attempted tenderness (Carnahan's women, whether pathetic or dead, are highly revered) and a truly funny line ("Fuckin' Coolio here tried to blow my head off!" shouts Patric of a disoriented hood played by Busta Rhymes). Overall, though, Narc can only remind us of brilliant crime dramas without becoming one itself.

 
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