Underground Film Journal

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Movie Review: Narc

By Mike Everleth ⋅ January 30, 2003

I’ve been a little worried about my choices of entertainment lately.

My two favorite TV shows that are currently on the air love to dabble in the ultra-violence, and sadly they’re both on FOX networks: 24 and THE SHIELD.

24 is the more restrained of the two, at least in terms of graphic brutality, but both shows also feature main characters of questionable morality. 24’s Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) is quick to decapitate someone as a means to justify an end. And on THE SHIELD, Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) is prone to shoot FBI informants in cold blood and burn the faces of drug dealers on electric stoves to uphold the law — and to turn a tidy profit from it.

Both actors have won Golden Globes for these roles and while they were also both nominated for Emmys only Chiklis won one of those.

The “bad cop” genre isn’t a new one, but it was certainly revitalized by 2001’s TRAINING DAY, a movie that was completely overlooked at the box office — probably due to a horrendous marketing campaign — but for which Denzel Washington won a well deserved Best Actor Academy Award.

With all these accolades flying around, it seems like everyone loves a bad cop. And I suppose it’s that tortured questionable morality that gives an actor something to really sink their teeth into and draws out their best performances.

Joe Carnahan’s NARC features some very good performances, although I can’t claim their “best,” from Jason Patric and Ray Liotta. The film actually features a lotta Liotta, who gained several pounds to give his character, potentially dirty detective Henry Oak, a more imposing on-screen presence.

Patric portrays a disgraced cop trying to earn his job back by finding the murderer of a fellow police officer — an officer whose best friend just happens to be Henry Oak. However, it’s not the plot of the film that I found the most engrossing. It was Patric’s Sgt. Nick Tellis that really drew me into this film.

Tellis is a former undercover narcotics agent who had to spend several years of his life as an actual junkie in order to blend into the underworld he was infiltrating. Now, all he wants is a cushy desk job to support his family, which consists of the obligatory nagging wife (Krista Bridges) and baby boy. Tellis is sick of tracking drug dealers, but he’s forced by circumstance to indulge in it for this one last case. Or, as his wife contends, does he really just love the living-on-the-edge lifestyle?

Although NARC features some scenes of ghastliness endemic of modern police stories, like THE SHIELD and TRAINING DAY, Carnahan’s shooting style and script structure is more reminiscent of ’70s cop movies, e.g. THE FRENCH CONNECTION, yet another film featuring detectives with questionable tactics.

With possible the exception of 24, none of these modern morality tales glorifies deviant behavior. If the Hays Office were still around, it could be at least semi-proud that many of these movies and shows feature the bad guy getting what’s coming to him in the end. (And, no, I’m not giving away the ending of NARC by mentioning this.)

However, I attended a recent screening of THE GODFATHER after which producer Robert Evans gave a brief lecture. While Evans was quite proud that many people consider THE GODFATHER the greatest movie of all time, he expressed remorse that the film inadvertently glorified gangsters (and THE GODFATHER PART II was an attempt to un-glorify them).

Do films like NARC and TRAINING DAY inadvertently glorify excessive, brutal behavior? I don’t know. But I’m glad that in this past year that I’ve consumed untold scenes of gun violence, I also got to see Michael Moore’s haunting, but peace-motivated, BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE. Who knows, maybe within the next couple of years a generation of filmmakers inspired by GANDHI will overtake our cinemas.