ICYMI: Phoenix (1998)
In his best roles, Ray Liotta doesn’t act: he seethes. I became aware of his mesmerizing presence in 1986’s Something Wild. He played Melanie Griffith’s fresh-out-of-prison husband who was up to no good. I remember being disappointed that such a buoyant comedic journey (that also starred Jeff Daniels) took such a dark turn in its third act and yet it was hard to take my eyes of this raw unknown actor.
He subsequently became best known for his breakthrough performance as mobster Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic Goodfellas, and has made an entire career out of playing intense, on-the-edge characters. He is also equally gifted in comedy for anyone who has seen 2001’s Heartbreakers or his self-deprecating multi-episode arc on TV’s Just Shoot Me. But he seems most at home when he’s blistering with rage behind his piercing blue eyes.
One of his best performances is on display in 1998’s Phoenix. Liotta plays Detective Harry Collins, a gambler who is equal parts addicted and superstitious. How superstitious? Amongst his cigarette smoking cops, he refuses to allow more than two butts be lit by the same match. “Three on the same match is always bad luck,” he steadfastly proclaims even citing a so-called scientific study. Harry is on the hook for a lot of money to his ruthless bookie (played sleazily by Tom Noonan).
Harry’s cop buddies (which include Anthony LaPaglia, Daniel Baldwin, and Jeremy Piven) try to convince him to arrest his bookie and be done with the debt. But in addition to being addicted and superstitious, Harry is strangely honorable. He refuses to cheat or use his badge as leverage and is dead set on paying off his obligation. Thusly, Harry with the aid of his fellow shady officers plan on robbing another criminal (a very suave and sinister Giancarlo Esposito) to solve all of their financial woes. No points for guessing how that turns out.
Phoenix sounds like standard wanna-be film noir fare but screenwriter Eddie Richey finds a way to make Harry and his eccentricities believable. As someone who has spent a lot of time in casinos, he seems real enough to me. Richey also provides a lot of entertaining dialogue. I enjoyed Harry’s obsession with the 1933 film version of King Kong and its two glaring oversights. I also enjoyed a very tense scene where Harry is given a chance to work off his debt by killing a low-level felon (Giovanni Ribisi) and instead tries to encourage to him to use his prison time to become well-read.
We also get a highly suspect but entertaining subplot involving Harry’s romantic woes with a young woman and her mother. Harry meets Veronica (Brittany Murphy) at a women’s clinic protest and just before he has a chance to sleep with her decides to use her as eye candy at a high stakes poker game. He loses and quickly surmises that she is bad luck. Upon driving her home, he becomes more interested in her mother, Leila (Anjelica Houston). It is very far-fetched but there’s something strangely charming in the scene where he tries to win a date with Leila by betting on raindrops.
Director Danny Cannon, unfortunately known for 1995’s Judge Dredd but also known for multiple episodes of CSI and Gotham, gives the film his usual dark tinge ala Tony Scott. But the film is truly an exhibition for Ray Liotta and his considerable talents. We watch as he schemes and fails and doubles back, all in the name of meeting his obligations legitimately. We are not necessarily rooting for him; we just want to see what he does next. Him, and those piercing blue eyes. #ManCrush