Narc is as cop movie as a cop movie can be. It’s got guns, chases, shouting, a stakeout in the rain in which partners drink coffee and exchange personal information, and a scene in which one cop’s neglected wife can’t take it anymore. It’s about addiction, violence, corruption, good intentions, bad judgment, and, of course, redemption, because every cop movie is about redemption, or at least the longing for it.
There are a lot of different ways, though, for cop characters to pursue that blessed state, and writer-director Joe Carnahan pursues his own line of inquiry with an energy — and a tolerance for moral limbo — that sets this gritty, propulsive B movie apart from the rest of the squad right from the first frame. (It’s a huge advance from Carnahan’s gawky 1999 freshman film, ”Blood Guts Bullets & Octane.”) All we know in the jolting opening sequence is that we’ve been thrown into the middle of a furious chase, breathing hard and running with the camera eye — no time to ask who or why.
The adrenaline is still pumping when Carnahan introduces his Samuel Beckett-division protagonists: Nick Tellis (Jason Patric), an undercover narcotics detective with a debt to pay for past recklessness in the line of duty, and Lieut. Henry Oak (Ray Liotta), himself on a recklessly insatiable mission to find out who killed his partner. The characters, and Carnahan’s shades-of-gray ”French Connection”-style action, inspire the actors — they play off one another with blazing skill. Bulked up and upholstered into bland coats and ties that manage to look menacing, Liotta, with a mean salt-and-pepper goatee, is a wonder recently risen from the acting underworld. And Patric, his worthy ally (or opponent), gives Tellis’ ambivalence a dimension of real sadness.
They’re just a couple of cops in Copmovieland, these two, but in ”Narc,” they find new routes through a familiar neighborhood.