- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 4, 2003

NEW YORK CITY — "He's not Dirty Harry," Ray Liotta declares, describing the undeniably forceful character he plays in the new crime thriller "Narc," a hard-nosed sleeper about a pair of Detroit cops investigating the unsolved murder of a colleague.
Jason Patric plays the more introspective collaborator, a suspended former narcotics detective named Nick Tellis.
Despite the disavowal, Mr. Liotta's character, Henry Oak, out of robbery-homicide, could be confused with a brawny, intimidating Harry, especially when his methods favor the aggressive and peremptory. They do quite frequently, allowing Mr. Liotta to do justice to his character's dynamic, heroically misguided essence.
The subject of a recent press junket hosted by Paramount Pictures at the Regency hotel, "Narc" was made on a relative shoestring last winter in Toronto and introduced at the Sundance Film Festival last January. The budget, something less than $5 million, was entrusted to the expertise of a financial management company called Cutting Edge.
The production money threatened to do a vanishing act while young writer-director Joe Carnahan and his cast tried to shoot the movie.
"Narc" opens locally on Friday, but it's officially a 2002 release. At Sundance, it became one of the most eligible sleepers on the market, winning a gratuitous champion in Tom Cruise, who brought it to the attention of his producing partner Paula Wagner. At the same time, Sherry Lansing, the president of Paramount, and her director spouse, William Friedkin, became active boosters.
"They were all flippin'," to use Mr. Liotta's term.
The struggle to complete "Narc" and get it into tender loving hands was recalled by Mr. Liotta, principal co-producer and lead actor; Mr. Patric; and Mr. Carnahan during round-table interviews at the junket. During a subsequent visit to Washington, where he shoehorned interviews at the Ritz-Carlton hotel into a busy day of promotion, Mr. Liotta echoed his enthusiasm for the project.
He became aware of the property soon after deciding his film career had gone stale and required a "more proactive approach." He's a little vague about the time frame, but one deduces some discontent with such pictures as "Unforgettable," "Turbulence" and "Cop Land," which appeared in 1997.
"I've definitely had an up-and-down career," Mr. Liotta reflects. "I came out of the box real strong with certain movies: 'Something Wild,' 'Field of Dreams' and the thing with Marty."
It amuses everyone that he has suffered a temporary memory lapse about such a major title, Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas," in which Mr. Liotta had a searing role as a mobster narrating the story of his criminal associations and outrages.
"I've never stopped working," Mr. Liotta explains. I've had some misses, but I've been trying all along to make the best choices I can. I was still in acting class when I did 'Goodfellas.' People forget that it wasn't considered a big hit. It opened at $10 million, which wasn't a big weekend even in 1990. There were people walking out. The reviews weren't stellar across the board. The audience often needs to catch up with what Marty's doing."
Anyway, Ray Liotta, 47, had concluded it was time for a change.
He was getting parts he wasn't crazy about, so he changed agencies and went to a new place. "I said, 'I want to know what you have that's not produced, that's totally free, that I could take and run with.'"
He says he wanted to produce and he was sick of waiting around for scripts to come to him. Mr. Carnahan's agent gave him the 'Narc' script.
"The more I read, the more it took my breath away. I literally gasped and started tearing up," Mr. Liotta says.
At about the time Mr. Liotta was discovering "Narc," he was nailing down supporting roles he liked in "Blow," "Hannibal" and "Heartbreakers" so the omens were positive again.
"I don't know what it was," Mr. Liotta says, "but the stars were lifting for me. In acting class, going back to my days at the University of Miami, they always said, 'If you hang in there long enough, it's gonna happen for you.' Maybe not on the timetable you want. I think it's only gonna get better. My idols were Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall. They started poppin' in their 40s and 50s. Somebody's gotta replace them, and it's gonna be me ."
After finding "Narc" and offering to do it as the maiden project of the production company Tiara Blu shared with his wife, former actress Michelle Grace Liotta, and Diane Nabatoff, a veteran studio executive and producer Mr. Liotta was faced with a crisis that jeopardized their shooting schedule.
"Cutting Edge almost forced us to close down during the third week because they messed up the financing," Mr. Liotta says.
"The bank was questioning the deal," which he says seemed to be tied up with a remake of 'The Devil and Daniel Webster,' a project that was eating up funds and might never be released. Rumors flew, and crew members threatened to walk out if they weren't paid in a timely fashion.
"Jason, Joe, Diane and I deferred our salaries to ride out the threat, but it was touch-and-go all the way," Mr. Liotta says.
He draws attention to the inordinate number of "executive producers" and "co-producers" on "Narc," saying, "The ones you don't recognize reflect the efforts of deal makers at Cutting Edge to raise bailout money from friends and acquaintances."
"Birds of a feather flock together," Mr. Liotta remarks sarcastically.
They did hold it together, scrambling around and raising enough to keep going. "Whether it was going to their dads' credit cards or to their little weasel friends who didn't mind contributing in exchange for a producer's credit, I'll never know, but we did not shut down. Not one of those people saw the script or stepped on the set or had any influence. We still got lied to. We didn't see our own money. They had to cough up extra on our salaries eventually because they were so late on those payments, but the important thing is that the movie got made."
Alluding to his co-star during the emergency, Mr. Liotta says, "Jason, God bless him, argued that we should try to keep it together because he didn't have anything as interesting to do back home. He hadn't worked in three years, as a matter of fact. He had his dog up in Toronto. We were already working, so it made sense to suck it up and get the movie made. It seems funny now."
Jason Patric is rather more famous as a part-time Hollywood recluse at 36 than the introspective asset and spellbinder he occasionally promises to become. He responds to the remark, "You've had an interesting career ," by commenting:
"It's probably more of a non-career in the Hollywood scheme of things. I've done the opposite of the book. I never have another movie going when one's in the can. Never a filler role in a movie I felt would be bad, just to tide me over I've tried to do only movies I wanted to see."
He says he's happy with the two movies he has made in the past five years. "That makes all the choices and non-choices seem worthwhile. We're sitting here talking about 'Narc,' which seems to be turning into a little phenomenon," he says.
Mr. Carnahan credits Errol Morris' documentary feature "The Thin Blue Line" with inspiring the pretext of "Narc." The cheerful and energetic Californian, who grew up in Sacramento and attended San Francisco State University, partly for lack of high school grades that could have qualified him for a prestige film school, says he saw the documentary when he was still in high school and kept plugging away at variations.
"Something about it just got to me," Mr. Carnahan says.
"A seemingly simple crime story became this vast human drama. A guy's on death row for killing a cop. But there's another guy who may have done it. I started with that. It was like tossing a pebble in a lake. The first visible ripples were in a short film I did at State. One of the worst short films I ever made. A C-minus thesis effort at best. So I knew I hadn't given this idea its due. I got to the point where I did my first movie, 'Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane,' which was really cheap and semipro but got me to Sundance. When I came back three years ago, I started to write this unfulfilled script in earnest. Finally, it developed into my first real feature."
Recalling the production crisis in Toronto, Mr. Carnahan says, "We were making the film in a vacuum. There was all this angst and pressure and dread hanging over us. At the time, I really despised everybody involved in the financial end for [what] they put us through. They didn't have any contingency plans laid out."

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