(2002) *** 1/2 R
107 min. Paramount. Director: Joe Carnahan. Cast: Ray Liotta, Jason Patric, Chi McBride, Busta Rhymes, Anne Openshaw.

Beginning with an adrenaline-pumped chase, Joe Carnahan's Narc announces its true grit as a cop movie. What follows--laden with well-worn archetypes but equally stained with a relentless disgorgement of escalating stakes, shadowy anguish, and kinetic action--walks the tightrope between "B" and "A" movie. But with razor-sharp, balls-out performances by Jason Patric and Ray Liotta and its pointedly thrown-back style, Narc comes out at least looking like the real deal.

Patric plays Nick Tellis, a Detroit cop whose harrowing, deadly confrontation with a drug-crazed felon has--to the pleasure of his world-weary wife--mortally threatened his career. Offered a chance at departmental redemption by contributing his expertise to the unsolved murder of a cop, Tellis finds himself unable to say "no." He decides that only one man can partner with him in the investigation: Henry Oak (Liotta), the loose cannon who knows the case (and the dead cop) best. Politics and personal emotions overshadow an investigation of the type that increasingly seems better left alone. Ultimately, faced with the deterioration of family and what few ideals remain, both Tellis and Oak lose their grip on the meaning of justice.

If Narc succeeds best at showing, it fails most notably in its most "tell"-ing moments. In style, Narc resembles not only its obvious forebears, such as Serpico and The French Connection, but the cold tones of the French policiers. But the devil is in certain over-the-top details of overplayed emotion. Carnahan's conviction for bloody set pieces is apparent, but such manipulation reacts shakily with emotionally keyed scenes like Liotta's too-neat character-defining monologue and an overtly unreal scene in which an empathetic Tellis examines the dead cop's "personal effects" (the cop had family photos and a painting by his young daughter when he was found dead, undercover, in a tunnel?). Still, the actors refuse to fail these questionable moments.

Carnahan's opening credits betray the tale of the movie's production: a voluminous list of producers followed by a terse identification of the two stars and the writer-director. The tenacity of the latter three define the picture and the production, which soldiered on even when the budget momentarily ran bone-dry (pass me another producer, please). Carnahan employs an unusually crisp soundscape, visuals which are moody but never Hollywood splashy, and--in an impressive montage of beat interviews--split-screen. These techniques serve a story which--though derivative at heart--packs a head-spinning surprise. The moral obfuscation of the ending redeems the story, edging it into a deeper shade of noir.

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