IF YOU THINK DETROIT looked grimly gritty in 8 Mile, wait until you see Narc (opening Friday, Jan. 10 at the Varsity and elsewhere). Shot in Toronto, it evokes a Detroit as real as a rotting oil drum exuding bluish fumes and prone to explode. Cinematographer Alex Nepomniashy, who helped make stars of Julianne Moore and director Todd Haynes by lensing Safe, bleeds most of the rainbow out of Narc's world, especially at the red end, leaving only scuzzy shades of gray. He and writer/director Joe Carnahan make you feel the numbing cold of a moral winter that will never end.
The opening scene is superb, as good in the cop genre as Goldmember's first bit is in the comedy genre. Adrenalin-drenched Nick Tellis (Jason Patric), an undercover narcotics cop, is chasing a crack-wack junkie through a housing project. The junkie stabs a bystander with a needle, then takes a child hostage, freaking out the kid's pregnant mom. Should Tellis shoot the junkie and risk shooting the kid? He makes a bad move, and his career is ruined. He's sent home to his whiny wife.
Then he gets one last shot at redemption —if he can help hard-ass cop Henry Oak (Ray Liotta) solve the murder of his narc-cop partner (Alan Van Sprang). They're a good match: Patric's fussy, head-trippy acting style sparks nicely against Liotta's from-the-gut thuggery. Liotta's got 30 pounds more gut than he used to: He's like the Hulk in mid-transformation, or a grenade a millisecond into detonation. They're playing clich鳠they've played before—the dewy young cop tainted by vice and the corner-cutting, pissed- off old pro—but they jam new life into the roles.
It helps that Oak is queasily ambiguous. Inspired by The Thin Blue Line, Carnahan uses split-screens and flashbacks to give contradictory accounts of how Oak's partner wound up taking the bullet: We can't get a fix on who the bad guys really are. It keeps you guessing. Some critics have complained that when Oak and Tellis tie up a couple of drug-dealer suspects (Busta Rhymes and Richard Chevolleau, both solid) in an auto chop shop and Oak starts whomping them to get their version more in line with his speculation, Carnahan is just reshooting the Reservoir Dogs ear-ectomy scene. No: This isn't masterfully orchestrated artifice, it's docu-drab—that's real crud dripping from a real chop-shop ceiling at 19 below zero. Tarantino made an A-list art film on $1.2 million; Narc looks like everybody was working for deferred salaries and expecting the film to be shut down at any minute (which was the case, until Tom Cruise signed on as co-producer). It's not high art, but it's solid B-moviemaking.
Liotta, the co-producer who got the movie made, hopes to ride it to the Oscars. Fat chance, fat man. The Oscars are A-list affairs. Still, Narc is important because it gives Liotta a career jump-start. With only two culturally important roles since Goodfellas, neither one a feature (Sinatra in the Rat Pack TV movie and the thug's voice in the computer game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City), Liotta is lucky to be alive. That goes quadruple for Patric, who's been a promising newcomer for 17 years. They blend well and may both go on to bigger budgets.
The monologues sound written down, and shouting doesn't redeem some padded dialogue. Still, Narc is more satisfyingly coherent than the average megabudget film: One sequence about a loser smoking ganja through a gun barrel in the tub is niftily done. If you want a hit of the '50s, see Far From Heaven; for the giddy '60s, see Catch Me If You Can; for '70s French Connection-style bliss, see Narc.