Good boys was, justifiably, the first word in almost every headline that appeared Ray Liottait’s happening last week; any actor who can hold their own against Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in a Martin Scorsese classic deserves the credit. But, in addition to excelling as a tough guy, he also had a vulnerable side and comedic chops. As a result, the list of his memorable performances is impressively long.
He earned a Golden Globe nomination for his first supporting role in something wild; embodied the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson in field of dreams; he went crazy like a deranged policeman in illegal entry; he ate his own brain in Hannibal; appeared in two Muppets movies (space muppets Y The Muppets Most Wanted); played a pivotal role as Ryan Reynolds’ partner in smoking aces; he faced Seth Rogen to the Queen tune on Observe and Report; and he lent his voice to the protagonist of one of the most famous video games of all time, Grand Theft Auto: Vice Cityto name a few.
But the Ray Liotta movie I think about the most is the 2003 one. Identity, in which he plays one of several people who are stranded in a desolate Nevada motel due to torrential rain and are picked off one by one by an unknown killer. It is essentially a modern retelling of Agatha Christie’s influential 1939 crime novel. And then there was none (which is directly referenced by a character in the film) until a seismic shift recontextualizes everything.
Guests include limousine driver Ed (John Cusack), prison officer Rhodes (Liotta), and his prisoner transport Robert Maine (jake busey, Starship Troopers), sex worker Paris (amanda peet, The X-Files: I want to believe), diva actress Caroline (rebeca de mornay, risky business), the young newlyweds Lou (William Lee Scott, The butterfly Effect) and Ginny (Clea Duvall, The faculty), parents George (John C McGinley, scrubs) and Alice (Leila Kenzle, Crazy for You) with her young son Timmy (Bret Loehr) and motel manager Larry (John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone).
The plethora of characters are deftly handled, each easily defined by their quirks after spirited introductions through carefully edited cuts (courtesy of the Academy Award winner). David Brenner) flashbacks showing their paths intersecting. As the mystery deepens, the B story concerns an informal trial for death row inmate Malcolm Rivers (pruitt taylor vince, constantine), with alfredo molina (spider man 2) as his psychiatrist and osborne holmes (donnie darko) as a judge.
Identity is an exciting and dizzying ride that builds Twilight Zone-esque intrigue as tension builds over the course of 90 minutes. The rug is pulled out from under the viewer multiple times, most notably with a clever third-act twist that might astound M. Night Shyamalan and again with a shocking button just before the credits roll. Like any good mystery, the clues are hidden in plain sight, making repeat visits rewarding.
james mangold (Logan, Ford vs. Ferrari) was a somewhat unexpected choice to direct the film, coming off back-to-back lauded dramas with girl, interrupted Y Kate and Leopoldbut he does it enthusiastically. Despite being contained in a single location, the images never get boring. Working with the cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (In pursuit of happiness, Ford v Ferrari), Mangold gives the bright picture a neo-noir atmosphere with gloomy cinematography and endless rain.
Equally surprising is the fact that the tightly plotted script was written by michael cooneywhose only previous work of note is writing and directing the 1997 cult classic Killer Snowman. Jack Frost. He uses his background in the genre by injecting a slasher movie mentality into the psychological thriller. As Cusack points out in a making-of report: “In a lot of movies, you have to do things where the character drives the plot. This is one where, in a way, the actors are kind of elegant chess pieces; the writer and director are weaving these different stories together.”
From screen veterans to character actors, the eccentric ensemble get along with one another. Cusack shines as the flawed hero. Liotta, meeting Mangold after working together in 1997 police land, offers layered performance. Peet embodies the independent woman who refuses to be mistreated. A bespectacled McGinley plays ineffectively well shaken. Busey is effortlessly obnoxious. Vince, who starred in Mangold’s debut in 1995 Heavyit’s creepy but cute.
Angel Badalamenti (twin peaks) was originally hired to compose the soundtrack, only to be replaced by alan silvestri. Silvestri’s score is noticeably more subtle than his grandiose work in works like back to the future, the avengersY Forrest Gump, but it’s creepy enough to match the tone of the film. The soundtrack also makes good use of Foo Fighters’ “All My Life” and Bob Dylan’s “I Want You.”
Identity it was shot in the Los Angeles area on a budget of $28 million. It opened at #1 at the box office on April 25, 2003, grossing over $16 million and earning over $90 million worldwide. It received mixed but generally favorable reviews, scoring 63% on Rotten Tomatoes. While I can see why it might fall apart with the twist for some, I find it to be a nearly perfect thriller as it cleverly subverts expectations at every turn without a dull moment. It is currently streaming on Netflix.