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Out of the darkness, a door bursts open into white. Two desperate figures burst into a rundown Detroit park. In the lead, a junkie who stops long enough to stab a passer-by for being an obstacle. Behind him, not quite fast enough, an undercover narcotics cop who sees his career melt away, but doesn't let that get in the way of being anguished over the innocents caught in the middle of this chase.

And, oh yes, if you manage to breathe during this sequence, you're in the minority.

Sure enough, writer/director Joe Carnahan's Narc grabs you by the throat. It's an edgy piece that has an unexpected smartness to it at times, and revels in its spareness. Unfortunately, occasionally that spareness lets you see into the bones underneath, and you realize that it's not quite the drama it wants you to think it is. But who can pay attention to the man behind the curtain when you've got an Oz like Ray Liotta?

Liotta isn't the main character in this movie, but he is the engine that drives it along. Beefed up and worn down, his Henry Oak hulks along on a crusade for justice that few can withstand. In his path lies the reedy Nick Tellis (Jason Patric), the ostensible title character.

As he suspected, Nick's career flushes away when that junkie, Elvin Dowd (Dan Leis), does something horrible to an expectant mother. The incident still resonates with Nick eighteen months later, when the police department calls him away from being a stay-at-home dad.

Even though they know Nick shouldn't be back on the force, the department needs him and his drug connections to help solve the murder of another narc, Michael Calvess (Alan Van Sprang). Oak found the body, and as Calvess' partner is deemed too close to be effective on the case. But even without that, Oak's will to see justice done at any cost has made him politically dangerous.

Indeed, even as Captain Cheevers (Chi McBride) explains this to Nick, our first glimpse of Oak has him beating an in-custody perp with a billiard ball in a sock. To be fair, Oak has a bleeding head wound at the time.

This is no buddy cop flick. Both men have demons that keep humor from rearing its head. Both men are utterly lost. Oak's wife died years before, forcing him to forge a new sense of right and wrong in the world, and Nick fell prey to the perhaps too obvious fate of narco agents; we catch fleeting chiaruscuro glimpses of him shooting up in memory. Whatever their personal problems, they both want to see a cop killer brought to justice.

Narc considers itself an important movie. Largely shot with a bleached eye to match the washed-out Detroit setting, there's scarcely a warm moment. Most of the actors appear tired and on edge, in an environment cold enough to match their souls.

The few happy times with Nick's family stand out for their quiet sensitivity, and thankfully, the film never beats you over the head with the family theme. At least, not with a billiard ball in a sock.

But underneath it all comes the feeling that we've seen this sort of thing before. The script's twists and turns really don't come as much of a surprise. A turning point in the case fairly early on should actually negate almost everything that follows. If anybody but Liotta were playing Oak, the hole would be much more obvious. Instead, we have no choice but to buy that this guy is going to go on.

Always a forceful actor, Liotta has gone criminally underused in recent years. Narc should bring him back to the top. Given a few obvious Oscar baiting moments, the actor manages to keep your attention on the story and not him. It's a rare trick that proves just how good he is. Having pulled a bit of a DeNiro and bulked up for this role, he looks gone to seed, but still seedy. Liotta personifies his character's name, and every moment he's on screen is a moment that everybody else fades away just a little bit more.

Doing more subtle work, Patric manages to at least stay in the picture. His arc has more weight, and leaves the audience with the right kind of questions. Between the two actors, Narc becomes a movie worth a second look.

The only real miscasting comes with Busta Rhymes late in the film. He has a persona so outsized that even though he plays his role believably, the fact that it's Busta Rhymes takes you out of the moment.

Carnahan has style and ideas, and though a lot of hype has surrounded this film, this isn't the one that he's hit out of the park. We can expect more from him, and he looks to be a filmmaker to watch.

If you're an Oscar follower, then you have to check this out for Liotta. Otherwise, this may be a film best left for a guys' night on video, where its flaws will be completely overshadowed by its coolness.

What's It Worth? $6

Derek McCaw

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