The film follows a narcotic police officer in the year 2024 named Frank Grieves (Elliot Cowan). It's been a couple of years since the pharmaceutical company Ambro successfully lobbied to legalize drugs, creating safe versions of narcotics that people could take legally. Frank's job, therefore, is to bust black market narcotics dealers who traffic in non-Ambro high. One night, Frank investigates a homicide -- a man with half of his face missing, still sporting an unusually high body temperature after death, with indications of drug use. As he struggles to try and determine what kind of chemical could cause such a reaction, he starts to get pushback from his superior officers, especially when he discovers a mysterious woman, Eva (Elodie Yung) in a storage container. As Frank continues to push -- putting more pressure on an already-strained relationship with his wife (Molly Gaisford) and young son Ben (Louis Trefgarne) -- he starts to discover evidence that Ambro is up to something nobody could have possibly dreamed of.
Without naming those overly indicative examples, Narcopolis falls in line with a type of movie that has two paths in front of it: it can either acknowledge a certain aspect of its plot early on, one which will tell the viewer a great deal about where the story is going to go, or try and obscure it as long as possible. To varying degrees, the other films that come to mind opt for the former, and succeed mostly on having fun within that framework, or adding further complexities that help to distract from what could make the movie predictable. Narcopolis is the one example that takes the latter option, and unfortunately, it doesn't make a great case for that strategy. The result is a movie that is consistently hard to follow, leaving the viewer with the sensation that the writing is intentionally beating around a bush. Scene after scene can go by without something clear for the viewer to hold onto or follow, and by the time Trefgarne is ready to show his hand, the truth may be "too little, too late."
Stylistically, the film is both a success and a failure. Narcopolis is clearly a low-budget movie, and it's admirable that Trefgarne has managed to give the film a cohesive, industrial decay look that helps root the viewer in a specific but not unrecognizable future. On the other hand, the movie is oppressively ugly, bathed in sewer greens and browns, cold grays and blues, and frequently slathered in darkness. I recently watched a movie from 2002, and it felt like a strange and unusual experience to watch something set in a world that wasn't drained of color, with pale skin and nearly monochromatic backgrounds. Trefgarne also falls into the trap of adding unnecessary "futuristic" details to his universe that hardly make sense just to be different, such as barcode license plates and photo goggles that look less efficient than a smartphone.
The film's one trump card comes in the form of its leading man and its top-billed co-star, who manage to help propel the film through its various rough patches. Elliot Cowan navigates his character carefully, a cop overcoming his former addiction, looking to stay on the wagon while trying to figure out a mystery that powerful people don't want him to solve, and which takes a physical and mental toll on him the more details are revealed. As Frank reaches the end of his rope, Cowan finds a nice degree of insanity that never devolves into caricature while also coming off appropriately desperate. The bond between Cowan and his son feels authentic, giving the movie a much-needed element of emotional depth. Trefgarne is also lucky to have Jonathan Pryce, playing Yuri Sidorov, a scientist who Frank turns to for help. Even though Yuri's role in the story is limited, Pryce adds gravitas simply by showing up, providing a couple of crucial exposition scenes with the energy they need.
The Video and Audio
"Narcopolis: Reflections on a Filmmaking Adventure" (16:40) is a fairly enjoyable making-of featurette which succeeds because it avoids recapping the story or the characters and focuses on reflections from the various people involved, including Trefgarne, Cowan, and Pryce. These are supported with quite a bit of B-roll from the making of the movie, showing greenscreen, locations, and the planning that went into the scenes. The one other video extra is a deleted scene (3:32), which honestly does a better job of clarifying Frank's actions during the climax than the finished film.
An original theatrical trailer for Narcopolis is also included.