Ray Liotta did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite being nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and a sole critic award, for portraying Lieutenant Detective Henry Oak in Narc.
Ray Liotta is not an actor who has not had the greatest variety of roles in his career. He more often than not is cast as a thuggish criminal or sometimes as a cop most often a corrupt or rather stupid one. Aside from a few exceptions these roles are generally are not all that complex. This role is one of those exceptions. I should just quickly address that I think this is a lead role even though his two nominations came in the supporting category. Although Jason Patric as the rookie Nick does has the most screen time Liotta's character overwhelms the film much in the same way Denzel Washington's in Training Day and it is his character who really drives the character the forward leaving Patric's character often as an observer.
I mention Denzel Washington's character Alonzo Harris in Training Day and there are some definite similarities to Henry Oak in this film in that they are both men who know their job very well and are paired with a less experienced cop who will come to question some of their methods. Henry Oak as portrayed by Liotta is a far more complex character though, and is not the villain of the film or at least not in a straight forward fashion. In fact when we first meet Oak we see him as a cop who probably is actually too devoted to his job of cleaning up the street, and making scum pay for the crimes they committed. Liotta's whole appearance is brilliantly crafted and from the moment we see him we know the type of cop Oak is.
Henry Oak is a guy who is probably been a cop for too long, and has seen too many terrible things in his time. In Liotta face we see the history of Oak which has been long an arduous. It is filled with exasperation but even more so an anger from experience. Liotta is excellent in his creation of the ticking time bomb that is Oak. He hates just about everything there is in his job, and he is barely able to hide this fact even in a calm situation. The smoldering rage is something always in him and Liotta brings this into his characterization as a constant. He plays it just right so we see what the job has done to him and how at any moment it seems that Oak could snap, but Liotta never lets this become a one note character.
Liotta importantly brings this intensity into Henry Oak who also is an honestly efficient police officer. As the officer Liotta is very effective in presenting him as competent. The way he handles every crime scene, or potential crime scene they come on Liotta plays a certain way in terms of his physical performance. Liotta maneuvers each of these scenes that reflects both the ability of Oak as a police officer but as well the volatile nature of the man. In every scene Liotta excused the command and intelligent in Oak as he checks out every scene, and interrogates any suspect. We can see a man who gets to the point quickly, but as well Liotta shows that Oak goes head first in taking chances with a possible death wish.
Liotta avoid being one note by having Oak function as a normal human
being. Yes he is a man obsessed with what he does and that underlying
obsession never fully goes away at any point yet Liotta does show
variety in the man. There are scenes where he can enjoy a moment such as
the death of a particularly stupid criminal, creating some
camaraderie with his new partner or a warmer moment between Oak and the family of the slain police officer. Liotta although keeps Oak's unstable
behavior as a constant never lets this override him as a character as a
whole. He allows there to be an actual person with his performance. Yes
he is a hard as nails cop which is his defining characteristic, but
Liotta never lets this be his only characteristic.
What drives this man so hard is told to us in an early scene which is an incredible scene for Liotta. The scene depicts Oak telling a little about himself to Nick including that his wife has died from cancer and how that has changed his manner as an officer. Liotta is spellbinding as Oak reveals the truth in the man. It is a terrific scene because Liotta still has that spent tired face yet he shows us some tenderness in this man. Liotta delivery is pitch perfect as we see briefly a love and caring in the man that overwhelms his hate even while the hate still resides in him. It is a great scene for Liotta as he humanizes Oak in a powerful fashion giving insight in why Oak's brings such intensity with his job.
Oak is persistent in the search for the killer but slowly it seems he might want the case wrapped up for more than avenging his friend's death. Liotta is terrific in planting the seeds in simple moments where Oak acts just ever so slightly suspicious as maybe he seems even too quick to anger even for Oak. This all culminates when he and Nick finally come upon the men who seem to be responsible for the murder. Liotta finally lets the volcano erupt in this scene and it is brutal. The full extent of the rage in Oak comes out and he seems capable of almost anything. Liotta does not hold anything back showing Oak an emotional tsunami that will do anything to get the confessions from the men or he will kill them. It is an amazing scene for Liotta because he manages to bring an even greater intensity to the already tense Oak, and suggests the full extent of what ending this case means to Oak.
This leads to Oak's final scene when he forced to tell Nick exactly what happened the day the man killed and what Oak had to do with it. The scene builds up that Oak could be the villain, but Liotta did something very special in that he made me believe in his character enough that I could not believe that his character could be dirty at least not in the traditional sense. Liotta doing this only makes the final revelation all the more tragic as Oak's reveals why he was trying to bend the law. Liotta face is haunting as Oak relives the memory he tried so hard to forget.
We also see in flashback what this memory is and Liotta is very moving as Oak loses it again not in anger this time, but rather from sadness over the fate of his friend. It is a heartbreaking scene that Liotta gives the poignancy and power it deserves as we learn all that Oak did was not to protect himself, but to save another he cared so deeply for. This is outstanding work by Ray Liotta as he is able to give a truly sympathetic performance while being the hard edge cop who knows the street like the back of his hand. It is a testament that Liotta's talent as he gives such a detailed and complex character, and gives a soul to the type of character who are often left soulless.