Jan 15, 2003 at 12:00 am

“If you haven’t seen what I’ve seen and done what I’ve done, you don’t know where I’m coming from.”

It’s been 18 months since undercover narcotics officer Nick Tellis (Jason Patric) was suspended, and he’s still under scrutiny. But now the departmentneeds him again, and he has to cooperate to avoid serious repercussions from his freakish and gruesome mistakes. To make matters worse, he’s broke and his wife-with-baby is on the verge of leaving him if he doesn’t quit the undercover life.

The department assigns him to a murdered-cop case with nothing to go on but dead ends and a violent partner-in-mourning: Henry Oak (Ray Liotta), who was previously discharged — after fellow narcotics officer Michael Calvess (Alan Van Sprang) was beaten and shot — due to “unstable” behavior. But Oak is still unsettled because Calvess’ life “was worth a little bit more than a wreath and a rifle-shoot.”

Because of his intimate knowledge of the case, Nick gets a grateful Oak reinstated, and the investigation turns into an emotionally delicate good cop-emotionally volatile bad cop, intense truth-vs.-invention partnership.

Narc is supposed to take place in Detroit, but don’t look too hard for familiar sites, since most of the film was shot in Toronto. Aside from a glimpse of an “Interstate 75” sign and an across-the-water view of the Ren Cen (which, as we know, you’d have to be in Canada to get), this story could have taken place in any generic city with a drug-ridden underbelly.

More to the point, Narc was inspired by the “detective directing” of Errol Morris’ documentary The Thin Blue Line, a film that unravels the evidence and testimonies around the 1976 murder of a Dallas police officer. Writer-director Joe Carnahan’s own fascination with a murky cop killing started out as a short film called Gun Point (1994). But he yearned to delve deeper into the entangling intricacies of a murder investigation, and the result is a feature-length film (powered by expressive visual tones and textures, not to mention formidable performances) that nonetheless suffers from a touch of self-deception.

On the surface, Narc is a stylish crime thriller. It opens running. A handheld camera follows Nick racing through blurred urban alleys and jumping backyard fences with visions of heated syringes. You hear alarms, heavy breathing, a Mexican woman screaming inside a house. The guy he’s chasing grabs a man on the sidewalk and injects something into his neck. As Nick lifts the hapless man’s head, he’s already gurgling out his last breaths as blood gushes to the cement. Nick is forced to drop him and continue his hellish pursuit. Carnahan’s camera choices make your heart race with the cop and inevitably tap into the chase’s heart-distressing end.

Later, a blue haze saturates the screen. On stakeout, two cops sitting inside a car find themselves with the opportunity to open up their vulnerable sides. Shot from outside, bare branches reflect off the window and onto Oak’s face like physical manifestations of the emotional fissures he’s recounting to Nick.

At one point, Carnahan layers multiple shots simultaneously to illustrate Nick’s double life (home to work) and the many-faceted search for answers the cops undertake. His sketchy, repeated images of Nick’s ever-changing mental version of the murder depict the young cop’s methodical, slow-motion realizations in which Calvess ripens into Nick’s doppelgänger — and Nick can’t rest until the dead cop’s ghost is set straight.

As Nick, Patric plays on the line between curiosity and obsession. And as usual, Liotta barrels onto the screen with nonchalant intensity as Oak. But Liotta is put in an impossible spot because his character’s deceptions ultimately undo him and the believability of the entire scenario. Too bad.

There’s a chance, however, that Carnahan means to deceive his audience just as our protagonist is deceived, but I think not. It’s more likely that he constructs a contradictory character — masked as complex — to increase plot tension and to keep us hanging on, which we do. But if you stop to think about them, this story’s weaknesses could pull the whole experience apart like a loose sweater string.

Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].