Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Jason Patric, Ray Liotta, Busta Rhymes, Chi McBride
Director: Joe Carnahan
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround, French Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Paramount
Features: See Review
Length: 105 Minutes
Release Date: June 17, 2003

“This has nothing to do with rules and regulations and everything to do with right and wrong.”

Film ***1/2

Even in the wake of a stunningly superb cop thriller like Training Day, writer/director Joe Carnahan has delivered a gut wrenching piece that, along with Antoine Fuqua’s film, breathes new life into the cop genre. Narc is both a gritty cop thriller and a rich character piece, and it ranks amongst the most brutal and assaulting films I’ve ever seen, and I mean that in a good way. Right from the opening sequence—a foot chase that was shot entirely on a handheld camera—you get a sense that this isn’t going to be much of an uplifting piece. In this opening alone, a needle is jammed into a bystander’s neck, and a pregnant woman is accidentally caught in the line of fire, and the unborn child’s life is also claimed.

The aforementioned incident took place while narcotics officer Nick Tellis (Jason Patric) was working undercover in a tension filled bust. Once his mark discovered Nick’s true identity, all hell broke loose. Now, 18 months after the incident and leaving the force as a result, Nick has been offered a new case, the murder of another undercover narcotics officer, a case which failed to produce a single lead. Although resistant at first, desiring only a desk job so that he can steer clear of the heat, Nick agrees to continue the investigation. His superiors promise him a desk in exchange for a conviction.

The only catch here is that Nick will have to be paired up with Henry Oak (Ray Liotta), a dedicated cop, who has an extremely high conviction rate, but who is undoubtedly unstable since the murdered cop was his partner. He makes it clear to Nick that there will be nothing that will stop him from bagging the individuals who murdered his partner, someone who he was really close to, as well as his family.

Their trail leads them to several junkies, some of which are found dead due to bizarre accidents. One of their leads ends up being a corpse lying in a bathtub with a head missing, thanks to the fact that the poor individual used what he thought was a bong, but ended up being a loaded shotgun. With still no leads produced, Nick discovers that the truth behind the murder may lie within secrets that only Henry knows about.

For the two leads, Narc is a pivotal career highlight, especially for that of Ray Liotta, who delivers his single best performance since his breakthrough role of Henry Hill in GoodFellas. Liotta is on fire throughout this film, not holding back anything in making his Henry Oak one of the most intense and very complex characters seen on screen. If he looks any different, it’s because Liotta gained a reported 40 pounds for the role.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Narc is how the film made it to a big studio. Clearly an independent release, a rough cut of the film was spotted by no less than Tom Cruise, who loved it so much that he was willing to donate money, something which was very much needed for the production. Then it wasn’t too long before the film got additional support from a big major studio, that of Paramount. For director Joe Carnahan, it must have paid off big time, since he is slated to direct the next Mission: Impossible movie.

Narc is another riveting entry in the cop genre, along with Training Day and Dark Blue. Loaded with sharp visual power, knockout performances, and an undying presence of brutality, this is certain to deliver a jolt to whoever experiences it.

Video ****

The visual style of Narc is, if anything, essential, as it very much mirrors the dark undertone of the story. Paramount’s grand transfer of the film does this notion complete justice. The film includes several scenes shot in somewhat high contrast, along with brief instances of grain, giving the film a unique visual look. Other scenes are that of a grayish, blue-like hues, a la Steven Soderbergh, which also look terrific. Superb, indeed!

Audio ***1/2

Within the film are many technical tricks in the audio department that will really pay off when you watch this. The 5.1 mix is terrifically dynamic and consistently lively, even though much of the film is heavily dependent on dialogue. But the sound power remains intact throughout, especially in the several instances of shootouts, as in the opening. Dialogue and the absorbing score by Cliff Martinez (Traffic, Solaris) result in high points, as well.

Features ***1/2

Nicely done extras at hand here, including a commentary with director Joe Carnahan and editor John Gilroy, 4 featurettes including an interview with director William Friedken (a big fan of the film). Lastly, there’s a trailer and trailers for The Italian Job, Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, Timeline, and The Core.


Narc is an uncompromising and highly charged cop thriller that ranks with the best of the genre. Credit must go to writer/director Carnahan and the two leads for creating memorable characters.