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Police surveillance in America

. "Narc"

On the streets of Detroit, undercover narcotics officer Nick Tellis (Jason Patric) is chasing a perp. The sequence is a no-holds, balls out, run between the two men and a third: the cameraman, jumping fences and other barriers, darting between buildings, eluding, finding, cornering, and ending with Tellis blasting a hole through the perps head as he was grabbing a young girl as a hostage. But some bullets go astray and the pregnant mother of the child receives a wild round and it costs her her baby. Tellis is suspended over the incident.

This is camerawork that is as jerky and swift as the chase demands, by a cameraman who is as athletic as the running actors, giving a real-life desperation to the chase with no compromise for "angles" incorporating the wild spontaneity and upredictability of it. We are in a movie with that quality and this sequence sets it up.

Cut. Months later. Tellis appears before a police commission that is asking ambush questions and he has no use for it. Turns out, though, that he is in a peculiarly appropriate position to investigate the apparent murder of Officer Michael Calvess, another narc cop, and the commission interview was to get him on board. He rejects the idea, which meets with the agreement of his loving wife (Krista Bridges) and we see him in gentle repose with his infant son. But, at the urging of Captain Cheevers (Chi McBride), who is offering reinstatement, he agrees to read the Calvess file.

In it, he discovers two pieces of information that hook him. The first is that Michael Calvess was a family man, much as Tellis himself, and loved his kids. This is evidenced by family photos showing the dead officer in hugging embrace of his kids and wife. This is a perfect reflection of Tellis' own feelings for his family. He will find this man's killer.

The second significant data in the file is that the dead officer's partner was Lt. Henry Oak (Ray Liotta). Oak is considered too close to the case to lead an effective investigation. "Yes, Captain Cheevers says, "Oak is a man who makes solid collars that make solid cases", implying that he's also a loose-cannon. But, Tellis insists on partnering with Oak as a condition of his participation.

The two narc cops meet and exchange hard-nose questions as they ascertain each other's bona fides as cops and relative worth as partners. They are a believable pair feeling each other out for mutual dependence in situations of immediate mortal danger. They don't have to love each other, just be able to respect the other's qualification to watch his back. The tough talk ends with Oak's declaration, "The only thing you need to know is that I'm going to bag the motherfuckers who killed Mike."

The investigation leads to a world of grit, the seamy drug-infested underside of Motown as the two cops chase down leads. When one minor crack dealer insists on a toke of his fix before he says anything, the officers allow it. "This has everything to do with right and wrong and nothing to do with rules and regulations", Oak says. It pays off, and though Tellis is wounded in the incident, they get the name of a source, a lead.

The pace of the investigation slows to a crawl, and a strain to stay with the drama after such a heated start sets in. But, this is good and bad. The good thing about it is that writer-director Joe Carnahan takes the time to show how difficult it is to get leads in a murder investigation, however intense the desire may be for the cops to come up with something. After a prolongued sequence of street interviews which come to nothing, it's all the more understandable why finally finding someone who was involved with someone who was involved would make them accept the pragmatic technique of looking the other way if it meant gaining knowledge that's so hard to come by. We're talking street ethics here, like Oaks says. And the film does a good job in a police procedural in exposing that reality.

On the other hand, the pacing conveys another reality, that this is essentially a short story, stretched out into feature length. The extra screen time allows for much internal debate within the principle character as well as a stream of flashback images of the out of focus killing scene and reminders of his own dubious past.

This doesn't sink the picture, which owes its appeal to a toughly written screenplay about the fascinating subject of renegade cops who stretch the power of their positions well beyond responsibility and correctness. But, that appeal is limited to those who can take cruel imagery, like a rotting-corpse crime scene, the smell from which causes a hardnose like Tellis to vomit.

All of which leads to an ending that Carnahan might have lifted from the Japanese classic about competing witness stories, "Rashoman". The first witness to the killing points to the two guys who Calvess met that day as his killers. But, those guys, when they're found and interrogated, offer up their version, in which they're innocent of the shooting. And then, there's a fourth man on the scene, one who was armed and who was the victim's backup in the drug deal. He has his version. All are credible and there's no one around to prove it one way or the other.

Add to this movie's appeal the convincing performances. Ray Liotta has no trouble conveying a powerful man with no conscience, limited moral guidance, self-absorption, emotional greed. He seems to be made for such characters, and this is one of his most engrossing. It's exactly the kind of role that would have been given to Brian Dennehy as a knee jerk casting 10 years ago.

Jason Patric as the sympathetic hero who is tough enough to do the right thing in extreme circumstances, throwing personal consequences to the wind, is quite good, though the good guy whose commitment to the job destroys his personal life is a bit long in the tooth, a configuration we've seen too many times to give much credit for it in this setting.

I'm suggesting here that the directorial and visual style of this film makes for powerful dramatic presentation and is a leading factor in the buzz over the film, but it's not a perfect picture. It's certainly right for its market. It'll enhance the career paths of its two leads. It might even garner a nomination. It certainly brings attention to Joe Carnahan for a success with his second film, but, it's not the sensation some have ascribed to it in comparisons to "Training Day" and "The French Connection".

This is also a film that's not without its producers. We've never seen a longer list of 'em, (the producers, executive producers, co-executive producers, line producers and associate producers comes to 18 individuals). Interestingly, two of the executive producers are Tom Cruise and Ray Liotta. The steely blue cinematography is by Alex Nepomniaschy; with the original music by Cliff Martinez.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Ray Liotta and Jason Patric, narcotics undercover cops with different agendas

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