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Hawking his first starring role in a big-budget fantasy movie--as Robbins, the mysterious hero of the futuristic prison flick No Escape--Liotta's famous demonic laugh ("HehHehHehHehHehHEHHHHHH) is nowhere in evidence. Perched on the edge of a sofa in a downstairs room of the Hotel St. Germain in Dallas, where he's staying during a promotional visit to the USA Film Festival, he is relaxed but not exactly easygoing. Trot out the standard personality-profile questions (where did you grow up, what were you like in school, what was your first profound moviegoing experience, if you could be a tree what kind of tree would you be) and he smiles ruefully, then declines to answer.
Ask a truly irrelevant question, and his already piercing blue eyes seem to light up with near-nuclear intensity. It is possible, of course, that the man is a softhearted little pussycat who also happens to be a convincing actor. But Liotta gives no outward hint that this is the case: face to face, from first moment to last, he locks eyes with you like a man interviewing for a position as chief agony foreman in Hell. Norman Mailer, biographer of executed Utah murderer Gary Gilmore, once said that he never felt certain that he had looked into the eyes of a born killer until he shook hands with Burt Lancaster. Ray Liotta's gaze brings that anecdote to dizzying new life.
When pressed, Liotta will, in fact, play the game--not because he enjoys it, but because it's part and parcel of the Hollywood PR circuit, which, more than any other factor except word of mouth, determines whether a film becomes a smash or a dud. And in the process of playing the game, Liotta does not participate in the illusion that an interviewer can spend ten minutes at a roundtable discussion or thirty minutes in a hotel room with him and come away understanding what makes him tick.
"I read profiles of me where the writer comes up with all kinds of stuff that I didn't mean to convey, and analyzes me up and down in ways that have nothing to do with who I really am," he says. "It makes me wanna find the guy and get in his face and yell, `Hey, man, fuck you, all right? You wanna know me? Walk around in my skin for 38 years. Then you're qualified to say shit. Not before.'"
Liotta concedes that he is known as a loner in the industry. He likes it that way--not because he's a snob, but because he thinks his childhood buddies from his hometown of Union, New Jersey, and from his struggling soap-star days in New York City on "Another World," are more fun to be with and a lot better adjusted. "I basically have one best friend, one guy I hang with all the time, and that's a guy I was on the soap with," he says. He does not offer the best friend's name, and his face indicates that he would not give it if asked. (Nor is he interested in specifying in which city "back east" he now resides. "I could tell you where Mr. Liotta currently lives," a Savoy Pictures flack said, "but then I'd have to kill you. Seriously, though--he does not release that information...) However, Liotta is upfront, even cynical, about his motivation for appearing in No Escape. It's mostly financial.
As if he needed to admit this: Produced by action vet Gale Anne Hurd (who brought us both Terminator movies) and helmed by British slickster Martin Campbell (Criminal Law), the film is handsomely produced, edited and photographed, but shoddily conceived--an overscaled, underwritten "B" picture. It starts out promisingly, with the hero, Robbins, a renegade military officer who killed his commander over an undefined dispute, arriving at a corporate-run prison where even thoughts are monitored.
But shortly thereafter, Robbins is sent to a remote tropical island where the worst of the worst are dropped into the brush and expected to fight for survival against gangs of felons. The setup is a blatant reworking of Road Warrior: a gang of seminomadic evil characters (dressed in dark colors) keep trying to take over a small colony of hardworking, fair-playing, freedom-dreaming good characters (dressed in light colors). Like Mad Max, Robbins wants to be left alone, but he eventually gives in and helps the good guys fight the bad guys, and in the process, lets us see just a bit of his carefully guarded humanity.
The best reason for seeing it is Liotta's performance. His sleek, menacing physicality augmented by a brand-new, rock-hard body (courtesy of the same trainer who pumped up Linda Hamilton for Terminator 2), Liotta is righteousness incarnate--a freshly minted action icon, darting catlike from one shot to the next and putting the spookiest gaze in the business to fascinating use. He is so effective at communicating Robbins's alienation and inner turmoil that when the script finally forces him to explain himself, the ensuing speech seems redundant. The discrepancy between what No Escape does for Liotta and what he does for it is downright embarrassing.
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