Detective Nick Tallis (Jason Patric) is a Detroit-based undercover narcotics cop who accidentally shoots a pregnant woman while trying to stop a crazed junkie from injecting a child with a deadly mix of drugs in a playground. The woman loses the baby, Tallis loses his badge. Eighteen months later, Tallis is climbing the walls playing house-husband, so jumps at the chance to get back on the force. The deal is this: he must investigate the recent murder of another narc called Michael Calvess, beaten and shot while undercover — a conviction will secure him the desk job he craves. So Tallis hits the street once more, alongside Calvess's old partner, Lieutenant Henry Oak (Ray Liotta), a veteran bruiser determined to nail Calvess's killers at any cost.
Narc may feel at times like an extended episode of The Shield or NYPD Blue, but that's because the films it most resembles — seventies police classics The French Connection, Nighthawks and Serpico — have had such a profound influence on modern TV cops. From Patric's David Crosby-style handlebar moustache to distinctly non-techno police offices piled high with paper and reports, this is a film out of time; so much so that it seems weird when at one point we see Patrick chatting on a mobile phone. The hand-held camera work, bursts of graphic violence, difficult-to-follow conversations about police procedure and motley supporting cast of drug dealers and petty criminals (including rapper Busta Rhymes) are all de rigeur these days, but writer/director Joe Carnahan still manages to package these traditional elements with gripping aplomb.
If it takes a few minutes to spot Patric beneath his grungey wool hat and facial hair, then Ray Liotta is almost unrecognisable as the hulking, brutish Oak; he looks more like Oliver Reed than Goodfellas' fresh-faced Henry Hill. While not entirely free of the actor's occasional tendency to cross the line into cackling ham, this is nevertheless Liotta's best performance since Scorsese's gangster epic, a mass of suppressed rage that threatens to explode at any moment. Patric is no less impressive; his is the less showy role, but his portrayal of the complex Tallis — a good man trying to balance a love of his family with the dangerous draw of his job — is subtle and sympathetic, especially during the scene in which he questions Calvess's wife, recognising in her much of the anguish his own wife experiences over her husband's choice of career. It's a shame that Tallis's troubled homelife isn't explored in greater depth, but Carnahan remains more interested in his two main protagonists and their increasingly murky investigation.
Detroit proves to be the perfect location for this tale of bubbling violence and moral bankruptcy, the desolate winter streets captured brilliantly in Alex Nepomniaschy's ice-blue photography. Nothing in the film quite matches the searing opening sequence as Tallis desperately pursues the dealer whose murderous actions will lose him his job, but if the film isn't quite as cutting-edge as Carnahan seems to think it is, then the restless pacing, dynamic performances and sheer kinetic energy make for undeniably compelling viewing.