“To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth” — Voltaire
When Ray Liotta unexpectedly passed away on May 26 from undisclosed causes on the Dominican Republic set of Dangerous Waters, tributes poured in from film writers, many lauding his turn as Henry Hill in Goodfellas as the best of his illustrious career.
The choice is understandable. The Martin Scorsese classic is generally considered the best film that Liotta was in, but that doesn’t automatically mean that it was also his best performance. Since 2002, that honor has rested with Joe Carnahan’s Narc, a relentless detective thriller that takes advantage of the enhanced dramatic skills Liotta attained in the interim.
To properly appreciate Liotta in Narc, one must take stock of his journey as an actor up to that point. After star-making gigs in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild and as Shoeless Joe Jackson in Field of Dreams, Liotta took on his most challenging part thus far in Goodfellas. Second-billed behind Robert De Niro and in front of an Oscar-winning Joe Pesci, Liotta excels as everyman mobster Henry, the saner, more relatable counterpart to his more fiery and volatile co-stars.
But in Narc, it’s the now-veteran Liotta who’s in the showier role, penned by a William Friedkin disciple with a fondness for The French Connection anti-hero Popeye Doyle. As another Henry — volatile Detroit detective Oak — Liotta’s character towers over the film even before he steps onscreen. Discussed by his colleagues with a mix of reverence and fear, Oak makes good on his unstable reputation in a flashback introduction, sporting a gash on his neck and smashing the hulking perp who gave him the wound with a billiard ball in a sock.
If that’s not enough to convince viewers of his visceral nature, Oak’s intense presence is solidified as he gets to know his partner, Nick Tellis (Jason Patric), a fellow department misfit thrown into a last-gasp effort to figure out what happened to Oak’s friend Michael Calvess (Alan Van Sprang) — who, like Tellis, was an undercover narcotics officer. With Patric in the Henry Hill audience surrogate role, Liotta is free to take risks and explore the crooked (?) cop’s inscrutable layers that make Oak so fascinating to behold.
With his close-cropped haircut and gray-tinged, wolf-like goatee, Oak is an aerodynamic figure, able to maneuver from the office to the streets with ease, despite looming like a mobile mountain of muscle. That dynamic imagery and Carnahan’s agile yet hard-nosed storytelling keeps the film’s focus on Oak, even while Tellis technically calls the shots as the duo investigate Calvess’ death. But as the grizzled elder statesman, Liotta’s magnetism unquestionably posits Oak as the team leader, and it’s thrilling to witness him blast into suspects’ home, wielding a shotgun like it’s a third appendage and behaving as if locked doors are sheets of rice paper.
The role’s physicality suits Liotta, yet even when he’s shouting at a colleague or suspect, his performance somehow remains subdued, suggesting he has higher gears to shift to if necessary. Dulled slightly by age and probably booze and cigarettes, his altered vocal timbre makes him compellingly difficult to read, and channeling the line-crossing cop tradition set forth by Orson Welles’ Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil and Russell Crowe’s Bud White in L.A. Confidential, Liotta’s Oak is a walking moral conundrum, on whose every word and action invested viewers hang.
In addition to his palpable commitment to the role, Liotta’s turn in Narc is fortified by multiple extra-textual factors. Not only did Carnahan prioritize Liotta playing Oak, but the actor gained weight, grew the aforementioned facial hair (which he’d never done for a part), and further aged up via eye makeup. Also contributing to this all-in devotion is Liotta’s role as producer alongside his wife, Michelle Grace, who so wholly believed in the project that they were willing to work overtime to acquire funding and ensure that the independent production would be completed. Liotta also deferred his payment until after filming had wrapped so that the crew could be compensated and continue to work.
Such investment is evident throughout his multifaceted performance, from small moments like Oak opening up to Tellis on a surveillance job about his deceased wife to major turning points, including the gloriously long sustained interrogation of two suspects at a chop shop. The climax’s cat-and-mouse mind games that manifest in various permutations between colleagues and criminals construct a phenomenally rich atmosphere in which anything seems possible. And while revelations are doled out by unsuspecting parties, Oak’s reactions take center stage as audience members breathlessly await the outcome.
Though Liotta may very well have been capable of comparable electricity in 1990, that dynamism was reserved for his more experienced co-stars. But a dozen years later, he found himself in that central position, and with a combination of complete filmmaker confidence and a personal/financial stake in the final product, Liotta put all of his cinematic gifts together, and crafted the definitive role of his career.