Cops and robbers, psychos and intimidators – such is the world of Ray Liotta’s film persona. The man plays mad better than most, and he has a damn fun time doing it. I make it a point in every In Character piece to let my choices for the actor’s six best roles represent the scope of their craft. I look for strong and nasty, kind and caring, fire and ice. And, upon picking my favorite Liotta roles, it’s obvious that he is at his best when he’s angry. The guy can play sympathetic, no doubt, but there’s nothing more convincing (and appropriately terrifying) than watching Liotta flex the lethality he possesses.
Something Wild (1986)
Liotta’s work as a charismatic psychopath in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild is tricky to praise. Before we meet Ray Sinclair, Something Wild is an incredibly fun and quirky little romantic comedy. But once Ray is introduced, the film turns into an over the top lover’s revenge flick. It’s still a fine film, but the Sinclair character takes the movie in a direction that I’ve never welcomed. Now, the trick is that, although I don’t necessarily like the Sinclair subplot, there is simply no arguing how perfect Liotta is in this movie. He initially plays Ray as a charming, affable goon, and quickly morphs him into an utter madman. It was Liotta’s first serious film performance and it confidently declared him as a significant movie player.
Unlawful Entry (1992)
Officer Pete Davis
Unlawful Entry is one of those generic, perfect-married-couple-in-peril domestic thrillers that littered the ‘90s. It’s not a great film, but Liotta, playing a cop who becomes obsessed with a woman after her and her husband’s home is robbed, is manically brilliant in it.
I actually hadn’t seen Unlawful Entry before researching this post, and I must admit that much of the fun in watching the flick was having the benefit of hindsight. Basically, I knew that Pete Davis’ immediate affability would soon be replaced with bat shit crazy, psycho killer antics, and I couldn’t wait. Once Liotta let’s his characters turn, boy do they ever. Like most movies of this type, Unlawful Entry goes off the rails, but, as guided by Liotta’s restrained madness, it’s simply a blast to watch it unfold.
Cop Land (1997)
Det. Gary “Figgsy” Figgis
Many cops of many different moralities fill James Mangold’s criminally ignored thriller, Cop Land. Some are purely good, others are innately evil, and some, like Liotta’s Figgsy, toe the line so consistently, it’s hard to tell where he stands.
Cop Land is an intricately plotted film with plenty of densely written characters, so divulging a full plot synopsis here would prove too grand. Essentially, the film depicts veteran New York cops involved in very bad things, while bumbling New Jersey Sheriff Freddy (a perfect, read: perfect Sylvester Stallone) tries to stop them. Liotta is one of the few NYPD officers with a conscience. He’s not above breaking the law, but it’s also for (his version of) the greater good. Beyond Figgsy’s limp ethics, Liotta’s character fully hits his stride in the scenes depicting Figgsy and Freddy’s friendship. Freddy is a broken man, and Figgsy is the only one who sticks up for him. He gives Freddy confidence and convinces him to do what’s right. “You don’t drive down Broadway to get to Broadway,” Liotta says to Stallone in the film’s most telling moment, “You move diagonal.”
Det. Lt. Henry Oak
Henry Oak is the best, most ferocious, most complex cop Ray Liotta has ever played, and, given his penchant for playing them, I do mean that as high praise. After a cop named Michael Calvess is suspiciously murdered, troubled narcotics officer Nick Tellis (Jason Patric, also perfect here) is assigned to the case, helped only by Henry Oak – a big, burly, notoriously cruel officer who was Calvess’ friend and partner. The first time Tellis and Oak meet, Oak informs him that he’s going to bag the two thugs who put Calvess down. No conviction, no deal – straight dead. Tellis says what will be will be, and off they go.
Prior to Narc, Liotta hadn’t had a truly great, scenery-chewing role in quite some time. Sure, he elevated many a mediocre thriller with his intensity, but Oak was something to dive into. To prep, Liotta put on several pounds (consisting much of soy sauce and ketchup, as a way of fattening up his fact), and never let his terror subside while cameras were rolling. The result is as fine a performance as Liotta has ever delivered. Watching Narc the first time, you’re almost blinded by Liotta’s power. But when you revisit the film, fully aware of where it’s going, you can really appreciate everything that’s happening.
Narc was a small film made by a then unknown director. It hit tremendous financial trouble in the middle of shooting, and never received the proper distribution it deserved. That’s a shame. If things were handled well, Liotta would’ve been a shoo-in for an Oscar.
The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)
Liotta’s brief work as a crooked cop in this year’s magnificent The Place Beyond the Pines is what motivated me to write this piece. By now, Liotta has a presence that is tangible. From the moment we meet him, it’s so clear who Det. Deluca is going to be. He intimidates his way to the dinner table, cracks racist jokes of appreciation, verbally manipulates a rookie cop’s wife, and then things really take off.
Now, although Liotta has played some real sons of bitches, I’ve always been drawn to them. They’re fun and mischievous and unpredictable. Watching Deluca quietly force his way into a home, then gently ask the homeowner to make him a cup of coffee… well, I’m just not too sure how many actors could play that so convincingly. You’re scared, then you’re laughing, then you’re curious. You never know what the hell this guy is going to do next.
The Best of the Best
This was a tough call. For Liotta’s best role, I kept going back and forth between his vicious turn in Narc, to his epic and evolved work in Goodfellas. It wasn’t until I watched both films back to back that the choice was finally made clear.
The rise and fall of Henry Hill is one of the finest cinematic depictions of riches to rags ever captured on film. Many people are to thank for this, of course, but the surface anchor of Goodfellas has always been Ray Liotta. He plays every aspect of Hill’s demented persona to perfection. Young and impressionable, successful and angry, coked and confused – it’s such a layered, intricate role, one that I remained wholly impressed by.
And watching the film now, I’m puzzled as to why others were not very taken with Liotta’s work upon its initial release. Sure, he garnered his fair share of crucial acclaim, and pretty much launched his career to the next level, but his complete and utter lack of award’s attention is simply baffling. No matter, an actor certainly doesn’t need an Oscar to prove his worth. Awards or not, Henry Hill will be speaking to us for a long, long time.
Other Notable Roles
Field of Dreams (1989)
No Escape (1994)
Corrina, Corrina (1994)
The Rat Pack (1998)
John Q (2002)
Smokin’ Aces (2007)
Observe and Report (2009)
Youth in Revolt (2010)
Killing Them Softly (2012)