WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
My first encounter with director Joe Carnahan occurred through a viewing of his debut film Blood, Guts, Bullets & Octane (1998), a grating display of Tarantino-inspired violence and screaming. No, I wasn't enormously impressed with that film, finding it derivative and abrasive, but I had to acknowledge the director's accomplishment. On a micro budget, Carnahan wrote, directed, produced, and took a major role in that film, then dragged the finished product to Sundance to begin his career. The great triumph of Blood, Guts, Bullets & Octane is not the film but the way it served as a supremely effective launching pad for its creator.
Has ever a director's sophomore effort transcended his debut so radically and comprehensively as Joe Carnahan's Narc? On a larger budget—but not that much larger—Carnahan has crafted one of the most in-your-face, brutally satisfying police actioners I've ever seen. Interestingly, a back-to-back viewing of Octane and Narc will show you many similarities in style and tendencies—not least of which is to have his characters shout at each other through the entire film—and yet, whereas Octane is ultimately a failure, Narc is a thrilling combination of elements that add up to an enormously successful thriller. What makes the difference? How does Narc overcome the shortcomings of its predecessor?
That question is partly answered by Narc's extremely talented cast. A grunged-down Jason Patric plays Nick Tellis, undercover detective who leaves the force in disgrace after a terrible accident. Tensions are high at home and within himself as he's lured back to police work to investigate the murder of another cop. Joining Tellis in his hunt is Henry Oak, portrayed by the never-more-impressive Ray Liotta, whose presence is so gargantuan and imposing onscreen that you'll think he's bloating his way out of the film and screaming directly in your face. The two men dig their way deeper into the unpleasant case, the air between them sparking with suppressed and vented rage. Secrets are unearthed, and soon nothing is as it seems.
Beneath the seething performances is a story that's not exactly groundbreaking, but Narc is more concerned with its characters. There are parallel subplots at work in this film, involving children and losses of innocence, that provide for a surprisingly rich thematic experience. These deeper concerns, in combination with Carnahan's coarse realism and sharp-edged style, are so far removed from the surface nonsense of Octane that you'll doubt the two films were created by the same man. Take one look at that out-of-breath opening footchase and its resulting horror—all perfectly in service of Narc's story—and marvel at how far Carnahan has come. He is definitely a director to watch.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Paramount presents Narc in a grittily realistic anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. This is not the most beautiful film you'll ever come across, but its transfer is a perfectly accurate representation of what you saw in theaters. Narc is a generally ugly film, hard-edged, dark, and dirty-seeming—much like its subject matter—and this DVD brings that across magnificently. The murky, blue-tinged color palette translates accurately, and there's an admirable absence of digital artifacting, such as edge halos.
You'll notice an ever-presence of grain, like faint mosquito noise, through the entire film. Also, it's not a completely clean print. I noticed minor flecks and flaws. However, rather than a hindrance, this grain and dirt adds to the inherent dirtiness of the film, actually enhancing the subject matter. In the end, this presentation is very filmlike.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
This disc provides a strong Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track. Narc is a film that bombards you with screams and gunshots, and this soundtrack delivers the goods. Yelled dialog is mostly clean and clear, with only the slightest bit of distortion at the top end. The front soundstage, full of violence and rage, is a dynamic and wide aural presentation of Hell. The surrounds come into play periodically, mostly for ambience. The low end is deep and rich.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The DVD of Narc presents some of the most fascinating supplements I've seen in quite a while. These features are universally engaging. They're not of the sort that make you want to stab the Stop button on your remote after a couple minutes. These are full of quality interviews and information. Bravo!
Primary among the special features is a screen-specific Commentary by Writer/Director Joe Carnahan and Editor John Gilroy. This is a laid-back affair that Carnahan dominates, with modest assistance from Gilroy. It's a non-stop discussion about everything from minor comments about performances to major themes of the film. Despite Carnahan's talkiness and his obvious pride in what he's accomplished, he comes across as down-to-earth and even modest about his choices, giving credit where credit is due to his players and his crew. He acknowledges the influences of other great films in the genre, including those of William Friedkin and Michael Mann, as well as Errol Morris's great documentary The Thin Blue Line. The track is completely focused on the production and has a good sense of humor. It's a good listen.
Next up are three very substantive full-frame featurettes about the making of the film. These could have been combined into one long whole, but unfortunately there's no Play All feature. At any rate, I was very impressed by each of these.
Narc: Making the Deal is a 13-minute featurette about how Narc found its way to the screen. Carnahan is featured prominently, laying out his inspirations and his hopes for finding the ideal actors for the major parts. Ray Liotta and Jason Patric then become major aspects of this piece, talking about how they inhabited their characters. We learn about rehearsals and location filming in Detroit. Producer Diane Nabatoff makes an appearance at the end, talking about the rough neighborhoods they shot in.
Narc: Shooting Up is a terrific 19-minute featurette about the meaning of the film. Executive Producer Paula Wagner starts up this discussion about the shooting of the film on a shoestring budget. Carnahan, Liotta, and Patric then return for a deeper discussion as the piece expands to cover the film's major themes. It's a smart discussion that will definitely enhance your appreciation for the film's thematic undercurrents. Surprising inclusions at the end are short interviews with Tom Cruise, who helped bring the film to a wider audience, and William Friedkin, whose film The French Connection was a major inspiration for Narc.
Narc: The Visual Trip is another 13-minute featurette, this one focusing on the film's cinematography. Director of Photography Alex Nepomniaschy, who also shot Todd Haynes's disturbing Safe, shares a little about his methods. Carnahan also has a lot to say in this piece, suggesting that he had a lot of control over the film's look. Often, he begins sentences with "Alex and I decided…" That being said, some of the decisions that Carnahan walks us through (complete with film clips) are damned impressive. This piece also covers Narc's intricate editing process, bringing Editor John Gilroy into the discussion. Scoring is discussed at the end.
Next up is The Friedkin Connection, a 10-minute talking-head piece that prominently features Friedkin recalling his first screening of Narc. He calls it "the most honest film about police procedure I've ever seen." Friedkin proves to be a big Carnahan admirer, loving the way Narc focuses on the characters' personal lives. Later, he talks about the similarities between his French Connection and Narc. It's an interesting interview.
You also get the film's Theatrical Trailer in non-anamorphic widescreen.
Finally, you get Previews for The Italian Job (full-frame), Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (non-anamorphic widescreen), Timeline (non-anamorphic widescreen), The Hunted (non-anamorphic widescreen), and The Core (non-anamorphic widescreen).
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
One of the very best films of 2002 makes its way to DVD in an all-around magnificent DVD presentation. I fully expect this title to find a home on my year-end list of top 10 DVDs.