Revelling in the anti-hero

Henry Oak, the Detroit detective played by Ray Liotta in the recently released “Narc,” has anger-management issues.

Just ask the handcuffed hood on the receiving end of Oak’s vicious billiard-ball-in-a-sock beating. Or the suspect whose head gets bashed into a wall. Or his own partner, whose face is rudely introduced to a rifle butt.

To give Oak extra menace, Liotta added 25 pounds to his 6-foot, 180-pound frame, plus body padding and the scariest possible goatee. His performance has won critical praise and an Independent Spirit Award nomination for best supporting actor.

Still, Oak might not even qualify as the meanest miscreant on Liotta’s resume. He’s played a degenerate hood (Henry Hill in “Goodfellas”), sociopaths (“Something Wild,” “Turbulence”) and a slew of immoral cops on the edge (“Cop Land,” “Phoenix,” “Unlawful Entry”).

“People seem to forget about `Dominick and Eugene’ or `Corrina, Corrina’ or `Blow,'” says Liotta. “I was a good guy in `Field of Dreams.’ You just try to make the best choices that you can with what’s offered you.”

But Liotta, 47, hasn’t been exactly overwhelmed with his film choices.

“I’ve definitely had an up-and-down career,” he says. “You put your name above a movie title and they give you a couple of movies, but if two or three don’t do that well, then they don’t trust you with (marquee status). I kind of experimented a little too much, and it didn’t work out.”

“Turbulence,” the 1997 film in which he starred, “didn’t do very well,” he recalls. “And there was another stupid one that I did. And one of the reasons why I did that was because I was sick of losing out to certain people.”

“Sometimes, really great scripts will just go to (bleeping) ding-dongs,” says Joe Pesci, Liotta’s “Goodfellas” co-star. “Sometimes scripts will go to the he-man of the month. But if you look at everything Ray’s done, he’s always committed to the role. His real strength is the ability to snap, go over the top and make it believable.”

“There’s so many rewards with Ray,” says James Mangold, who directed him in “Cop Land” and again in the murder/thriller “Identity,” scheduled for March.

“There aren’t many men who can step in and play a kind of intensity that was typified by a Bogart or a Cagney, and also bring intelligence. There’s plenty of guys that bring machismo or fire, but often they’re not quick in the mind.”

To get the roles he wanted, Liotta had to clean house. He formed a production company, Tiara Blu, with his wife, Michelle Grace, and changed managers and agents. Another of his new agent’s clients was director Joe Carnahan, who was shopping his script “Narc.”

“I was just really blown out by it,” says Liotta. “It harked back to `70s-type movies, like `Serpico.’ And it had great characters, anti-heroes, and so we just decided to do it. I had nothing to lose.”

Tiara Blu backed the film, with Liotta taking dual responsibility as executive producer and star. “Ray focused on both his performance and on making sure we didn’t get shut down” financially, says Carnahan. “We made that film under incredible duress. Ray really kept his focus.”