In James Mangold’s criminally unsung Cop Land (1997), Ray Liotta played disgraced, disheveled, and chain-smoking police detective Gary Figgis, one of several NYPD officers living in “Cop Land”—a police enclave across the river in Jersey. In a cast that is outrageously stacked with talent and great performances—Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Annabella Sciorra, Janeane Garofalo, Robert Patrick—it’s Liotta who always leaves the most lasting impression for me. Figgis is part of the corrupt crew of cops, but exists on the periphery, an uneasy accomplice who keeps his distance until he needs something. He makes mistakes, including one with deadly consequences. Yet he also cares for Stallone’s insecure town sherfiff, Freddy Heflin. He sees how Ray Donlan (Keitel) and the others disrespect and ignore Heflin’s authority and encourages his friend to stand up for himself. Liotta is electrifying, a raw bundle of nerves living in constant internal conflict. During the stunning, Western-inspired, slow-motion denouement, Figgis arrives just in time to help Freddy. He finally does the right thing.
It’s impossible to take your eyes off Liotta, who gives a riveting performance as a man with a guilty conscience but a good heart. That was basically Liotta in a nutshell, in every film he ever made: absurdly great, and impossible to ignore. I always perked up whenever he came onscreen, knowing I was in for a treat. The man brought it, with full force, every single time out. From Something Wild to Goodfellas to Heartbreakers to Narc and beyond, he was always stellar.
Ray Liotta died this week, and now we are all deprived of one of the great acting talents of the last thirty-to-forty years. Let’s watch his films in celebration of his life and career, and marvel at his talent. Condolences to his friends and family. Rest in peace, Ray Liotta.