Five indie films that you gotta see -- Here are this season's bumper crop of low-budget films earning high marks

By EW Staff
Updated December 13, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST
Narc: Michael Courtney
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Ray Liotta ain’t heavy. Not anymore. Relieved of the 30 pounds he gained for the new crime drama ”Narc,” he’s looking younger, smoother. But he’s tired. Specifically, he’s tired of being mistaken for an old, fat hard case.

”Have you seen ‘Heartbreakers’?” asks the Lighter Side of Liotta, his glittery ball-bearing eyes widened to full puppy-dog dote. ”It’s really funny.” When this reporter reveals he missed the 2001 comedy (in which Liotta played a lovelorn hood), the 46-year-old New Jersey native looks chagrined. In a sweet way. ”You should see it,” he suggests. ”Just for the article. Because everyone thinks I’m like THIS.”

By ”THIS,” he means Henry Oak in ”Narc,” a Detroit narcotics cop as physically imposing as he is morally illegible. To play the role, the already 6-foot-tall Liotta donned lifts, pads, the aforementioned bulk, and what appears to be six additional pounds of wolfish gray goatee. He also deferred his meager paycheck for the sake of the low-budget indie (which so impressed Tom Cruise, he helped convince Paramount to buy it from Lions Gate to distribute).

It was worth it: Oak shoots, he kills — and this time he gets to cry. The transformation was so complete, Liotta actually went unrecognized at a recent press junket: ”Someone thought I was ‘Ray’s brother.’ ” Despite the identity crisis, Liotta, costar Jason Patric, and director Joe Carnahan are all getting plenty of media attention — and Oscar buzz is building (”Narc” opens Dec. 20).

In the meantime, Liotta wants to make sure we’ve all seen ”Muppets From Space.”

”I did a movie with Miss Piggy,” he says, hopefully. ”Did you see it?”

Sorry. Nor do we recall his big break in 1978, playing cuddly ”Another World” heartthrob Joey Perrini. More of us remember the sociopathic estranged husband of ”Something Wild,” the suburban mobster of ”GoodFellas,” and the cop-turned-stalker of ”Unlawful Entry” — plus that guy who got his brains eaten in ”Hannibal.”

Bad boys all. ”I just want to be the guy doing the chasing, not the one being chased,” Liotta says. Halfway through reading ”Narc,” he almost passed on Oak, envisioning yet another addition to his résumé’s crowded rogues’ gallery. Luckily, the script’s second half won him over.

He admits that he made the high-altitude thriller ”Turbulence” for reasons other than artistic, and implies the same was true of a string of forgettable mid-’90s thrillers. ”I realized that I just needed money,” he says. ”I have a wife [producing partner Michelle Grace] and a kid [daughter Karsen, 4] and a house.”

Which doesn’t mean he relinquished his professional pride. Liotta was mildly nonplussed when the lead in ”Cop Land” went to Sylvester Stallone, while he took a memorable supporting part. He was similarly taken aback when he was cast as Johnny Depp’s father in ”Blow,” despite a mere seven-year age difference. ”I thought I should be playing the Johnny Depp role,” he grouses. Amiably.

But that character-actor versatility is precisely Liotta’s selling point, according to ”Cop Land” director James Mangold. ”There’s such an ability to play both charm and intensity,” says the filmmaker, who also cast Liotta as a corrections officer in the upcoming thriller ”Identity.” Carnahan agrees: ”Thirty years ago, Ray would have [been included] in that era of Pacinos and Hackmans — absolute blue-blood true actors.”

Here’s the thing about blue bloods: They’re peeved when you haven’t seen all their movies. ”Please see it,” Liotta says of ”Heartbreakers.” ”Promise me.” Then he leans in, narrows his eyes, and makes a promise of his own: ”I will track you down.” This elicits a vigorous promise. Because Ray Liotta may not be heavy. But he ain’t your brother either. — Scott Brown


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