Narc gets high on ham

Rating: NNN

The abrupt opening, a lurch into a hand-held shaky-cam chase sequence shot on grainy stock, through housing projects and slush, is so generic a start that you wish the inferior Sylvester Stallone picture hadn’t taken the title Cop Land. They could have just called Narc that, like a new ride at Disney World. See junkies festering in corners! Dig the animatronic cockroaches! Thrill to a real drug bust on the mean streets of Anytown, USA.Joe Carnahan, Narc’s 33-year-old writer-director, doesn’t seem to have much real-world knowledge, but he has absorbed the collected works of Sidney Lumet, perhaps intravenously. With all its flashed images and rawness, Narc seems to be what happens when a young director swallows Serpico whole.

Filmed ultra-low-budget on the streets of Toronto (another reason the opening chase scene feels familiar), Narc got loads of buzz at Sundance and now comes with Tom Cruise listed as executive producer and major studio distribution. I suspect, though, that Cruise, not being stupid, sponsored the film to lock Carnahan up for one of his own projects.

Jason Patric, with the bad Fu Manchu, plays a disgraced cop he inadvertently shot a pregnant civilian. He’s given a chance to redeem himself and get his badge back if he helps solve the murder of another cop who, like Patric, had been working undercover in narcotics. He’s hooked up with Ray Liotta’s sinister goatee. Liotta plays a veteran detective who walks the line like a hitter brushing away the chalk at the back of the box. By the time he’s done, you can’t be sure the line was ever there.

The whole picture charges along like it’s some mystery about the unknowability of things, about a man’s quest for meaning. But, like bad Lumet, it’s really an opportunity for a pair of relatively powerful actors to go all methody and scream at each other, as if volume were somehow a measure of sincerity. Whoever says “Fuck you” the loudest wins. The style is window-dressing.

Liotta’s the reason to see Narc. He has a lot more fun than Patric, who sits around brooding, looking as if the intensity of his thoughts might make his head explode. After My Friends And Neighbors, his best performance, Patric will always be remembered as the guy who stepped in and took the bullet when Keanu Reeves decided not to do Speed 2.

Liotta is persistently undervalued. Casting him as the dupe of Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love Hewitt’s mother-daughter team of con artists in Heartbreakers seemed like conspicuous overcasting of a supporting part. Here, he has the juiciest dialogue, kicks in doors with a shotgun at the ready and gets to beat up suspects and try to kill his alleged new partner. Maybe he’ll finally get an Oscar nomination. It’s the sort of role that actors kill for.

NARC written and directed by Joe Carnahan, produced by Diane Nabatoff, with Jason Patric, Ray Liotta, Chi McBride and Krista Bridges. 103 minutes. A Lions Gate production. A Paramount release. Opens Friday (January 10). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 62. Rating: NNN

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