Directed by Justin Trefgarne
In liberal circles a constant argument concerns the morality of drug legislation. Were narcotics regulated then would it lead to better health outcomes, an increasingly dependent population or both? Director Trefgarne’s debut feature adopts this premise but, rather than focusing on philosophical questions about addiction, uses it as a platform for a high-octane sci-fi thriller. Resembling the offspring of Blade Runner and The Sweeney, Narcopolis is an ambitious, if not wholly successful, fix for people craving something new and homegrown.
A prologue set in 2044 introduces us to Ambro: the world’s leading pharmaceutical company. Under the cover of night two techies infiltrate their headquarters with an aim of destroying the mainframe. Moments later we’re shot 20 years into the past where hardboiled ‘dreck’ Frank hunts down dealers selling unregulated drugs on the black market. On his rounds he encounters an unidentifiable body, with half its head missing and signs of a mystery substance in it’s veins. But why are his superiors not keen on him following the case? And why is he being followed by people working for Ambro? There are many questions like this, as a simple premise leads our protagonist down the rabbit hole via a series of interesting plot twists, as he navigates this near-future setting. Along the way he meets a diverse range of characters, including mysterious scientist Sidorov (Pryce) and deals with personal demons, including a history of drug use that lead to an unfortunate incident with his boss Nolan (Bathurst). He also struggles to retain a work-life balance, removed from his partner Angie (Gaisford) and son Ben (Trefgarne).
Whilst I’m being purposefully vague on the wider story (annoyingly hinted at in the trailer), this is a fairly packed hour and a half, with a number of strands picked up throughout. Unfortunately whilst there’s a generous dose of action, it is paired with too little clarity. In particular the movie’s science fiction-heavy third act introduces a lot more problems than it solves. Too often the thematic contents are underlined by very unclear plot mechanics and rushed world building. As with this month’s horror release The Diabolical (reviewed here) it ultimately fails to marry its sub genres effectively. Only in this case it is more disappointing as the film’s premise is more promising from the start and more consistently engaging throughout. What happens is interesting, though the reasons for it are rarely coherent, somewhat diminishing the impact. This is especially notable when the initially skeptical Frank needs to make a big decision late-on, with neither the reasons nor the consequences being elucidated enough to build a tension around it. Instead it seems like Trefgarne is cautious about losing his audience’s attention, and so the few scenes of explanation quickly give-way to (admittedly accomplished) chase sequences or shootouts.
However, to the cast’s credit, their performances are all very strong and ensure the character’s emotional arcs are more successful than the action which gives their context. There’s a real sense of regret to the domestic scenes met with a warmth that hints at what could have been a great relationship. The setting is also top notch, with the future London being a moody but often beautiful location (particularly in the tech-noir sections). There’s great lighting, impressive computer effects and engaging exposition that rarely feels forced. In that respect Narcopolis manages to be an effective calling card for Trefgarne as a director, if not a writer. As such this is less a full hit of his talent and more an appetising taster to make us want more.