Filmed with the least steady handheld camera on the market, the chase scene that opens Narc takes up only two frenetic, violent, bloody and disturbing minutes. But it’s a pretty good tone-setter for this gritty and bleak, but feverishly involving, cop thriller.

On probation after barely surviving the aforementioned chase, and with a wife and new baby at home, Detroit undercover cop Nick Tellis (Jason Patric) needs a desk job. His superiors are willing to grant him one provided he uses his street smarts one last time — to crack the complicated slaying of a fellow undercover cop.

Tellis concludes that to solve the crime, he’ll need the assistance of the dead officer’s former partner, Lt. Henry Oak (Ray Liotta). Top brass bristles at Oak’s penchant for unpredictable violence, but pair the two anyway. As Tellis and Oak uncover the dead cop’s secrets, the truth comes out in a breathless finale that unfolds with a perfect balance of suspense and surprise.

Writer-director Joe Carnahan’s story is not predictable, but it’s not strikingly original either. Instead, Narc enacts its chokehold with its execution. From the intense personal drama in Tellis’ home to the violence in Detroit’s dilapidated warehouses, Narc blisters with a slow-burn intensity. Its raw, vibrant sound design complements its hard look and feel.

Exceptional angry actors both, Patric and Liotta are perfectly cast in their roles. But all the buzz about Liotta is true — this is his best work since Goodfellas. Sporting a weary, puffy face and a morbid cackle, Oak is just as frightening when he’s shushing someone as he is when he’s shoving a shotgun in his face. Purple-faced and buggy-eyed, Liotta endows Oak with humor, menace and, in his best scene, a truly sincere backstory.

As the film brilliantly melts down the two cops’ extremely tenuous partnership, it’s almost impossible not to get caught up in the frantic nervousness. Carnahan isn’t breaking new ground, but he has administered an astoundingly visceral shot of adrenaline to the police-procedural genre.