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Performance Anxiety 

*Narc (R)
Paramount Pictures

For a film with no discernible purpose beyond genre experimentation and performance showcases, Narc is not a bad little movie. Nick Tellis (Jason Patric) is a guilt-ridden narcotics officer who botched an undercover assignment, accidentally shooting a pregnant woman and a bystander. While he takes solace in his infant son and loving wife, unemployment insurance and full-time fatherhood aren't paying the bills. So when he's offered an opportunity to return to law enforcement -- provided he takes the case of the murder of an another undercover narc -- he deems it time for one last hoorah.

Narc offers an ironic twist to the detective noir, where cops fear desk assignments second only to castration. Tellis, however, is working for his weekend as he brokers a deal for such a staid post upon the successful completion of his mission.

The major glitch is that he chose to team up with one Henry Oak (Ray Liotta), the loyal ex-partner of the murdered officer, who is the scourge of his department. When we meet him, he pops a pool cue inside a sock and beats a handcuffed convict silly. In the hands of a lesser thespian, Oak would be a grating clich of the embittered, hard-as-nails psycho cop (see Harvey Keitel in the astonishingly over-praised Bad Lieutenant). But Liotta, who took on some weight for the role, surfs the edges of sanity while keeping two feet firmly planted on planet Earth. There's a tenderness mixed with volatility in Liotta's Oak that's lined with a plausible moral framework. Oak is not the cop who gets apoplectic for the sake of an ego trip, or to act out unresolved issues. Rather, his violence is more of a reasoned adaptation of street justice that he accepts as an unofficial part of the job.

Unfortunately, the team of Tellis and Oak is bogged down in director Joe Carnahan's sartorial indulgences. Among other visual gimmicks, there's split screens and constant flashbacks. Few stories are allowed to be told by the characters without disruptive crime re-creations. (America's Most Wanted, anyone?)

In addition, there's too much macho posturing and fetishistic violence. Certainly life as a Detroit narcotics officer is no cushy El Paso County commish gig, but I have to wonder if Carnahan's ghetto grit is not merely a ploy to indulge the fears and gawking fascinations of the popular white suburban imagination.

As Tellis and Oak's investigation continues, tensions mount between Tellis' wife, who threatens to leave him if he continues the work. The interplay between the impossible coexistence of offing smack-peddling gangsters by day and bathing infants at night adds a layer of depth and almost balances out the testosterone jamboree. Unfortunately there's not enough of it as the home front is subordinated to a highly convoluted web of lies and violence whose unearthing spirals Tellis' quest for truth. Yadda, yadda, yadda ...

When not going overboard with film school circus stunts, Carnahan's character study manages to hold through the duration, a credit to the talents of Patric and Liotta. The long-winded denouement is a narrative wrap-up that might as well include a set of Spark notes. If the movie serves no other purpose, hopefully it will provide a catapult for the teetering careers of its stars.

-- John Dicker

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