Fresh off HBO’s “The Rat Pack,” in which he played Frank Sinatra, Ray Liotta turns up in a terrific neo-noir, “Phoenix,” which opens today at the NuWilshire with scant fanfare--but which packs a wallop. It was written by Eddie Richey and directed by Danny Cannon, who know exactly what they’re doing when they let their picture sneak up on you.
The first third is convoluted, a noir convention; the middle section offers the relaxing satisfactions of the familiar, lulling you into thinking you know all the moves; and then out of the blue, an inspired and perfectly constructed finish knocks you flat, first with a flash of totally unexpected and preposterous comedy, followed by a deft touch of devastating irony.
“Phoenix,” which aired earlier this year on HBO, is not merely a matter of shrewd craftsmanship but a suddenly widening and deepening moral perspective that is expressed through Liotta’s beautifully sustained, endlessly revealing portrayal of a Phoenix policeman, undone by compulsive gambling, yet clinging to his own code of honor. (No wonder Liotta signed on as one of the film’s co-producers.) You may know where “Phoenix” is going, but it’s the getting there that’s so engaging.
Sure, there have been a zillion pictures like “Phoenix” dealing wryly with crooked cops and other lowlifes, with “L.A. Confidential” being the most recent and masterly example. Yet Richey, Cannon and a gifted cast and crew bring to their genre piece a surprising freshness, fired by the sheer intensity and passion of Liotta’s performance.
There’s a likable quality to Harry Collins (Liotta) that sets him apart from his pals. He’s a caring man and clearly has been a good cop. But his compulsive gambling finds him being given 48 hours by his bookie (Tom Noonan) either to come up with $32,000 or rub out a young prisoner (Giovanni Ribisi) who the bookie believes will rat on him.
Harry figures the best way out is to persuade his fellow officers, Mike Henshaw (a goateed Anthony LaPaglia), James Nutter (Daniel Baldwin) and Fred Shuster (Jeremy Piven) to hold up a loan shark-strip joint proprietor (Giancarlo Esposito), for whom Henshaw works on the side as a collection man. Of course, all sorts of unexpected developments come out of the woodwork once their plan is set in motion.
Tone is everything when you’re making a contemporary film in a time-honored genre. Wouldn’t you know a passing character comments that Phoenix is a city where a city shouldn’t be, that its founders sold their souls for a water supply? Wouldn’t you know that the bookie would be an eccentric, a guy called Chicago who lisps and who quotes Dostoevsky? (Harry knows his Dostoevsky, too.) And that both the bookie and the loan shark have a passion for elaborate metaphors and similes? Richey and Cannon shrewdly let themselves--and us--be amused, yet they resist being too spoofy or too reverent, hitting upon a bemused note that’s just right.
They’ve come up with the definitive noir woman for their leading lady: Anjelica Huston, who knows she can communicate world-weariness with a shrug or a lifted eyebrow and doesn’t push it. She’s a bar owner, tender-tough, who knows that the reason nothing happened between Harry and her aggressive daughter (Brittany Murphy) is that in the crunch Harry was more tempted by the chance to play high-stakes poker than to go to bed with a luscious 20-year-old.
Yet when Harry and Huston’s Leila meet there’s a spark, which Leila, who knows a loser when she sees one, intends to deny. Harry and Leila have a self-awareness that sets them apart from the rest--LaPaglia’s thuggish Henshaw, Baldwin’s somewhat dim Nutter and Piven’s decent but naive Shuster. Among the many other fine actors in smaller roles is veteran George Murdock as Harry’s landlord, with whom he shares a weakness for gambling.
Cinematographer James L. Carter gives “Phoenix” a classic shadowy noir look even though the film is in color. Production designer Charles Breen and set decorator Jeffrey Kushon draw from the ‘50s for lots of their props, but they do it in a way that is both subtle and accurate. Graeme Revell’s plaintive, fluid score helps set the film’s ever-shifting moods.
To be sure, “Phoenix” is violent, and it doesn’t attempt the scope of “L.A. Confidential,” but on its own terms it’s escapist make-believe that’s highly entertaining--and then some.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong violence, language, and sexuality. Times guidelines: The film’s violence is not excessive for the genre but is too strong for children, for whom the film’s themes and adult situations are also inappropriate.
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Ray Liotta: Harry Collins
Anthony LaPaglia: Mike Henshaw
Anjelica Huston: Leila
Tom Noonan: Chicago
A Trimark Pictures presentation of a Lakeshore Entertainment production in association with Graham/Nevinny Productions. Director Danny Cannon. Producers Victoria Nevinny, Tracie Graham Rice. Executive producers Tom Rosenberg, Sigurjon Sighvatsson, Ted Tannebaum, Michael Mendelsohn. Screenplay by Eddie Richey. Cinematographer James L. Carter. Editor Zach Staenberg. Costumes Alexandra Welker. Music Graeme Revell. Production designer Charles Breen. Set decorator Jeffrey Kushon. Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes.
* Exclusively at the NuWilshire, 1314 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 394-8099.