The business of an undercover narcotics officer is a down and dirty one. And Narc wastes no time getting that message across. Its opening minutes are of a terrifying, wild foot chase, done with hand-held cameras for just that right touch of dizziness. A cop, Nick Tellis (Jason Patric), is running down an obvious bad guy through some city projects, with guns blazing and bad things awaiting them both.
One of the biggest early surprises in a film filled with surprises is that this is only a secondary story. The main story comes later. Eighteen months afterwards, Nick has been kicked off the force for botching that job. But now they want him back -- seems he's the only guy that can help solve the mystery of another cop's murder, which was apparently committed while the cop was setting up a drug bust.
The background of the crime is kept vague, but it's made clear to Nick that the dead cop's partner, Henry Oak (Ray Liotta) is -- what's the proper word? -- rather unstable about the whole thing. In fact, Henry has been prohibited from even looking into the case.
That unstable business is shown in all its splendor in Henry's introductory scene, during which he goes at a prisoner with a pool ball in a sock, and inflicts some mighty painful damage. This is Liotta being gloriously nasty. He's bigger here than he's ever been, having put on 25 of his own pounds for the part, and being padded up with another fake 25 for better effect. The fashionable little beard and mustache, along with those piercing blue eyes, only help to make him look even more frightening.
The film turns out to be a combination of things. It's study of Nick and his crumbling situation at home, where the once-loving relationship with his wife has turned into a series of loud arguments since he's gone back on the job to partner up with Henry. But it's more a study of Henry, and what his life has turned into since his wife died and this job has become the only thing he cares about. That it's also about the ever-changing mystery of his former partner's death becomes less important than the story of the two men, even though the solving of that mystery is what drives the film.
Both cops are very smart and very passionate about their work, but they're certainly not a match made in heaven. Nor do they ever find out exactly why they were put together in the first place. While Nick is the strong, silent type who would rather do a lot of research before getting out in the streets to do the job, Henry likes to approach things at the gut level. Nick may have a furious outbreak of violent behavior from time to time, but he mostly sails on an even keel, even though a lot is roiling around in his head. Henry is a man of pent-up rage who's always ready to vent. There isn't a scarier sight than Henry coming at you -- fists flying -- his complexion almost purple.
Liotta also shows some remarkable range in the film. There are plenty of actors around who could hint that their character is a walking time bomb, either by facial expressions or a lack of them. But in one lengthy scene, Liotta delivers a quiet soliloquy to Patric, telling him, in just short of teary-eyed confession, how he keeps the memory of his wife alive.
That remarkable contrast between two different sides of his character is similar to what the filmmakers have done to the movie's physical makeup. There's lots of flashy camera work and fast editing, but there are also many long, static, dialogue-free shots that do plenty of speaking for themselves. A bit of structural experimentation about a half-hour in doesn't work very well at first. The film breaks into a split-screen visual that comes off as jarring. But eventually it turns into an effective touch, then goes back into one image.
The film also offers some of the most grisly crime scenes since Seven, then manages to pull more heartstrings than even in the Liotta soliloquy when Nick and his wife get into an awful argument and the camera shows how their fighting is really playing out.
Big secrets are saved for the end, which, while problematic because of a few questions left unanswered, actually works out quite well.