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Writer-director Joe Carnahan made his debut with 1998's Blood, Guts, Bullets & Octane, an action movie known more for its microscopic budget than for its actual content. Carnahan graduates to a bigger budget and bigger stars with Narc, a conventional but well-crafted thriller about an undercover cop (Jason Patric) who leaves the force after a gun battle in which he accidentally shoots a pregnant woman in the stomach. Though reluctant to subject himself and his family to the perils of police work, Patric rejoins the force to track down the murderers of another undercover cop killed during an apparent drug deal gone bad. To assist him, Patric recruits hardboiled cop Ray Liotta, a veteran with an impressive record and a reputation for bending the rules beyond their breaking point. As the men plunge deeper into the case, the line separating cop and criminal becomes increasingly blurred, and both Liotta and the dead detective have their conduct and character called into question. Carnahan alternates gritty neo-realism with bursts of extreme stylization–most notably in a breathless opening chase filmed with handheld cameras–but thankfully, his stylistic flourishes are in the service of the film's story, not the other way around. Carnahan shows enormous promise as a writer-director, but Narc belongs to its stars: Patric and Liotta are terrific in roles that echo their previous career highlights. The former's cop-on-the-edge is a close cousin to the drug-addicted detective he played in Rush, while the latter's rule-breaking detective echoes his turn as a corrupt cop in the otherwise-workmanlike Unlawful Entry. Narc contains plenty of familiar themes and conflicts, but Carnahan, Liotta, and Patric's stellar work help make it a triumph of craft over cliches.


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