Thursday, April 25, 2013

In Character: Ray Liotta

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.

Five Essential Roles
Something Wild (1986)
Ray Sinclair
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.”

Narc (2002)
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)
Det. Deluca
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
Goodfellas (1990)
Henry Hill
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
In Hannibal
Field of Dreams (1989)
No Escape (1994)
Corrina, Corrina (1994)
Unforgettable (1996)
Turbulence (1997)
The Rat Pack (1998)
Hannibal (2001)
Blow (2001)
John Q (2002)
Identity (2003)
Revolver (2005)
Smokin’ Aces (2007)
Observe and Report (2009)
Youth in Revolt (2010)
Killing Them Softly (2012)

Listen to my podcast on the sudden passing of Ray Liotta.


  1. Oh my god, that Hannibal scene has haunted me ever since I saw it.

    Cannot argue with your final pick. He was amazing in Goodfellas.

    1. What's even better is Hannibal giving some to the poor Asian kid on the plane! Ha, Jesus.

      Henry Hill is the man!

    2. Liotta is a good actor if the role calls for violence, anger and mean. But he sure isn't likable. He was adopted and often time adopted kids grow up to be very angry people. He would scare me. Weird fellow.

    3. That's very presumptive on your part. I've seen Liotta in plenty of interviews, and he seems like a great guy. I also know personal friends of his, and they say he's a solid fella. Him being adopted has nothing to do with anything. Period.

  2. It's a real shame that Liotta's entire filmography is littered with, in my opinion, more trash than gems. It's hard to believe the guy who was so amazing in Goodfellas, The Place Beyond The Pines, Killing Them Softly, and Hannibal (among others) can go and make such unwatchable dirges like Comeback Season, Crazy On The Outside, Operation Dumbo Drop, etc. etc.
    When Liotta is good, he's really good, but more often than not, he's in some real turkeys.

    1. Yep. And sadly, I often find that is the case with character actors. They get offered all sorts of (usually smaller) roles in all sorts movies - some hit, others flop.

      Even though he's been in some real stinkers, I'll always dig his work. He makes everything better, you know?

    2. I can agree with that probably 80 or so percent of the time. I definitely need to see Narc and Copland has been in my Netflix cue forever now so I really need to get on those. When he's on screen I can't help but watch him, but in that remaining 20-ish percent is a film like Comeback Season which I would rank as one of the worst films I've ever had to sit through.
      Good article though, always appreciate the pics and enjoy finding out about some more lesser known films (Narc)!

    3. Yeah you're right. He isn't always perfect, but like you said, when he's on, the man is on.

      Dude, Narc is INTENSE, but so so good. Just don't watch it while eating. Trust me.

    4. I'll keep that in mind!

      Have you seen A Rumor of Angels? Apparently he's supposed to be good in that one (I haven't seen it).

    5. Hmm, no I haven't. Doesn't really sound like my kind of film, but now I MUST check it out.

  3. i misread the character name 4 times for 'something wild', you'll know why

  4. Great post, Alex. Obviously, I'm a huge Liotta fan (too?).

    While I agree 100% with your choice of Henry Hill being his best performance, I think Copland defines what he brings to the table perfectly: He's not perfect, but he's oddly principled. Though, the Spider scene in Goodfellas speaks to that too, I suppose.

    And, for whatever reason, I've never seen Narc. Clearly, it's something I need to do. But to my credit (maybe) , I did see Unlawful Entry.

    In the theater.

    1. Thanks dude. Liotta is legit one of my all time favorite actors. Love this guy.

      So happy to find another Cop Land fan. I rewatched that movie for this most and he just KILLS it in that flick. Definitely check out Narc. He's incredible in it. Like... wow.

  5. I love that guy. Goodfellas is obviously his crowning achievement while I am going to see The Place Beyond the Pines this coming Sunday as it's playing nearby my local multiplex which made me change my schedule last weekend to see Trance and To the Wonder instead.

    One performance I want to mention that is very funny is Liotta's cameo in Wanderlust which I thought was an alright film. He is only in it for a bit but his cameo is truly hilarious.

    1. You know, I completely forgot about his Wanderlust cameo. You're right... decent film, but he nailed his part there.

      Hope you dig Pines, he really blew me away in it.

  6. Man, what happened to his career? One minute he's in Goodfellas, the next minute he's in direct to DVD crap. Get it together, Hollywood.

    1. Yeah he really has had to fight and claw for good roles recently. But I'm glad he seems to be staying somewhat away from the direct to DVD romps, and taking better roles in better flicks.

  7. Henry Hill would be my #1 choice as well, but I love seeing Det. Deluca on here. I'd probably include Markie Trattman from Killing Them Softly, but I haven't seen Narc, Something Wild, Cop Land, or Unlawful Entry yet(!).

    1. He was perfect as Trattman in Killing Them Softly. Was really tempted to include that one here. DEFINITELY see Narc when you can. It's astounding.

  8. Seeing that post made me realize I only saw him in 6 movies, yet it feels as if I saw much more. He is definitely one of those actors who you can't forget about seeing in the film, even if his part is small. He really should get more award love for Goodfellas, he was as good as Pesci was there.

    1. He really does have a significant impact on whatever movie he's in. I agree that he's as good as Pesci in Goodfellas. I'll never understand his (and De Niro's) lack of praise in that film.

  9. It's so hard to see Ray Liotta without thinking of Goodfellas. I always thought it was strange, though, how his career has resorted to mostly straight-to-DVD fodder. It seems his talents have been wasted lately. I'm going to have to check out some of your top picks -- still need to see Narc, especially!

    1. It is a damn shame that he's taken roles in such crap movies. But for me, the bottom line is that when he's on, he's on. You know?

      Definitely see Narc ASAP.

  10. Alex, there's no doubt that Goodfellas in Ray Liotta's best role and deserves the top spot. I think it's easy to forget just how good he is because Pesci and De Niro are so sharp in the flashier parts. That movie only works if we're along for the ride with Hill right from the start. When he starts acting like a jerk, we're invested by that point and will stick with him right to the end.

    For the other parts, I think Narc is the best choice, so I'm glad to see it mentioned in your list. I really didn't need to see that Hannibal shot again, though. Yikes!

    1. Hey Dan, love what you said about Liotta's work in Goodfellas. Couldn't agree more with you; his Hill really is the film's anchor, and it's sad that it still gets overlooked.

      Isn't that shot of Hannibal just ridiculous? I chose it because I think it's so silly.

  11. The man armed with a laugh that you're not sure whether to join him or get scared shitless because of. Hard to believe the man who started out playing 'Shoeless' joe went on to play some of the most violent angry characters in film. Yes, Henry Hill is the man's best work if for nothing else than his voice is PERFECT narrating 'Goodfellas'. That New Yorker hard-edged voice that just seamlessly captures that life-style, working in the mob.

    1. He really does have one of the all-time best laughs. You're right: you just don't know what to do with it.

      I'd definitely rank his narration in Goodfellas as one of the Top 5 narrations of all time. Perfect indeed.

  12. I don't understand why he is constantly snubbed at the Oscars. When given the right material, he is an amazing actor. He is one of those guys you are never really sure of. You feel like he could snap at any moment and that really brings a lot of tension into his performances. Goodfellas is of course the favorite, but i also loved him in Killing Them Softly recently. And i can't wait to see him in the next Sin City movie. I remember thinking he would be perfect for Sin City the first time i saw it.

    1. Hell yes! Liotta is the man and should have multiple Oscar noms by now. His complete awards snub for Goodfellas is shocking. I mean... nothing. Insane. I can't wait to see him in Sin City 2 as well. He'll fit perfectly into that world.

  13. He is the sexiest and most goodlooking male in cinema history, and very intense, believable actor :)