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The rebirth of cool

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On the surface, Narc sounds like the kind of flick that should be going straight to either video or cable. I had never heard of the director (Joe Carnahan), and the two leads (Jason Patric and Ray Liotta) are hardly the stuff of dreams. So what am I missing here? Why the hell is this low-budget movie getting one of those limited, Oscar-qualifying runs in late December before opening nationwide in January alongside pictures like The Hours and About Schmidt?

            Now that I've seen Narc, everything makes sense. This flick is the bomb. It belongs in the same company as the gritty '70s police dramas made by William Friedkin, Sidney Lumet, and Al Pacino. And that's saying something, considering those titles include films like The French Connection, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Panic in Needle Park, and Cruising. It seems like the hip thing to do is hail Carnahan as the next Quentin Tarantino, and I guess that makes sense. Like Tarantino, Carnahan is able to inject humor into even the most unspeakably grisly of acts. But unlike the Pulp Fiction director, he also incorporates several beautiful moments of reflection that recall Steven Soderbergh's quieter moments.

            The blending of equal parts Tarantino and Soderbergh is reflected in Narc's two leads, as well. Henry Oak (Liotta) is a fiery Detroit Metro homicide detective who'd sooner administer a vicious beating than leave things up to the legal system. On the flip side, undercover officer Nick Tellis (Patric) is introspective and tranquil. Yet despite their differences, each is, almost to a fault, dedicated to his job. Each also encounters certain and seemingly unrelated administrative problems shortly after Narc's blistering, mood-setting opening scene.

            Tellis is serving the 18th month of what appears to be an endless suspension following a shootout that involved a stray bullet killing a civilian. Meanwhile, Oak's best friend, an undercover narcotics cop named Michael Calvess (Alan Van Sprang), has recently been murdered in a deal gone south. There isn't one lead, yet the brass won't let Oak near the investigation because of his "passionate" history. They do want Tellis to work the case, though, and offer him full reinstatement if he's able to nab the perp with enough evidence to convict.

            Because he's married and has both a 10-month-old kid and a history of drug abuse in his past (Is this the sequel to Rush? He didn't iron those track marks away for nothing, you know), Tellis is reluctant to take anything but a desk job. He eventually succumbs to the temptation of once again receiving a full paycheck, but only if Oak is allowed to join his investigation. Before you know it, the duo is whipping us through the seedy parts of Detroit, which photographer Alex Nepomniaschy shoots to look just as cold and desolate as it did in 8 Mile (even though it's really Toronto here). I won't get too much into the story, but it does involve lots of gunplay, lots of violence, a pants-less snitch with an uncomfortable venereal disease, and a brief appearance by Busta Rhymes, who is barely recognizable whilst covered in blood. And screaming.

            Aside from Chris Cooper in Adaptation, it'd be tough to name a better, flashier 2002 performance than the one Liotta logs in here. Having gained quite a few pounds (as well as lifts and padding) for the role, he wasn't immediately recognizable, and it quickly made me look at the actor in an entirely different light. Sure, he's done psycho before, but never psycho with this much depth. Patric is almost Liotta's equal (acting, not physically --- he looks like Lester to Liotta's Willie Tyler) and is damn mesmerizing when he isn't unintentionally making you laugh by looking just like Ben Stiller's retirement-home slave driver from Happy Gilmore.

            Here's the deal with Carnahan: He made a movie called Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane for $8,000 a few years ago. It was a quiet indie hit and put him on the map as the next fill-in-the-blank (Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez) in terms of being an up-and-coming writer-director. Carnahan made Narc for more money, but the budget was still so tiny that he couldn't afford to develop his film and look at dailies during the 28-day shoot. If you happen to catch Tom Cruise's name in the credits, let it be known that he had nothing to do with the making of Narc. He did, however, help it gain exposure and a wider distribution. Even if Cruise's push doesn't help Narc find a theatrical audience, it's destined to be a cult video hit and will make Carnahan's next project very eagerly anticipated.

The print ads for Just Married trumpet the film as "The first BIG comedy of the new year!" and for once the studio isn't lying. Married is, officially, the first picture to be released in 2003, and the ad merely points this out, albeit in giant block letters that scream for attention. This should give you a pretty good idea of what the studio thinks of Hollywood's New Year's baby. They didn't stretch the truth and crow, "The funniest film of the new year!" or "The year's best picture!" but instead stuck with the facts. The tagline may as well read, "Projected on a big white screen!" or "Full of many scenes, edited together!"

            Now that I think about it, maybe the studio's ad isn't telling the truth after all. I did manage to overlook one word --- "comedy." Married is about as funny as Schindler's List. Every scene that had the potential to be the tiniest bit comical has already been rubbed into the dirt via the film's trailer and non-stop television commercials. Not some of them --- all of them. Like a ringworm (which is neither a ring, nor a worm --- it's a fungus) Married is a romantic comedy that is neither romantic nor comedic. If, instead of a feature film, Married was a UPN sitcom, it would be canceled faster than you could say Moesha.

            Married follows the tired old Boy Meets, Loses, Then Wins Back Girl flowchart, deviating only slightly by showing the tail end of the losing in its opening scene. We see Tom Leezak (Ashton Kutcher) and Sarah McNerney (Brittany Murphy) going at it like they were in a post-pubescent version of The War of the Roses as they return to the US from what we can only imagine was a horrifyingly unromantic European honeymoon. The two part ways, and seem quite happy about the split.

            Via flashback, we learn the origin of Tom and Sarah's relationship. They're a mismatched pair --- she's a Wellesley grad with a degree in art history and a job at Sotheby's; he's a community college-educated C-list radio traffic reporter. But none of that matters because love conquers all, right? The couple moved in together after one month and got engaged in less than a year, despite numerous misgivings from Sarah's blueblood family.

            After an abbreviated wedding scene, the two kids take off on what could almost be called Kelso's European Vacation, in that, thanks to bad luck, timing, and manners, just about everything goes wrong. Heck, you've seen the trailer --- you know what happens. All the bad things that Tom and Sarah encounter are right there, and all of the mindless stuff that comes in between these dreary events helps to create a colossal, time-wasting flop that is offensive to every fiber of my being. Most of it is weakly re-hashed bits from other, funnier films, specifically the first two Vacation flicks and There's Something About Mary, right down to the dog flying out the window.

Interested in unsanitized movie ramblings from Jon? Visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy www.sick-boy.com, or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.

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