The heat can make you do crazy things. In “Phoenix,” a decent stab at but not slice of film noir, the temperature is soaring. Thanks to a tidy yet familiar script by Eddie Richey and assured direction by Danny Cannon, “Phoenix” ignites the screen with gut-wrenching action and incendiary performances.

phoenixCannon has been down this road before. His first feature, “Young Americans,” a tougher-than- nails crime drama set in London, showcased his ability to create memorable characters. “Phoenix” continues that tradition. There are no good guys in “Phoenix.” The landscape is dotted with dubious characters.

Film noir is always a tough nut to crack because the writer and director have to work overtime to get us to invest ourselves in some pretty unlikeable characters.

Harry Collins (Ray Liotta) is the most likeable male character of the bunch. He’s a Phoenix cop with a nasty gambling habit. Harry just can’t seem to get a break, and his rising debt is causing concern around town. Especially interested in Harry’s ability to pay is a vicious bookie named Chicago (Tom Noonan), whose lisp makes him sound like Tweety Bird.

“Phoenix” begins with one of those classic film noir teasers. On a dark, rain swept street, a car crashes. The occupant crawls out of the car and takes shelter in an abandoned warehouse. Cold and bloody, the figure puts a cigarette in his mouth and uses a crimson stained one-hundred dollar bill to light it. The figure turns out to be Harry, and immediately you’re just dying to know how he arrived at this point in his life.

This leads to the inevitable flashbacks (all good film noir incorporates flashbacks) which show Harry and his cop buddies in happier times. There’s Mike Henshaw (Anthony LaPaglia), a risk taker who works for loan shark Louis (Giancarlo Esposito) when he’s not jumping into bed with half the female population; James Nutter (Daniel Baldwin), a practical joker who likes to watch his superiors suffer; and Fred Shuster (Jeremy Piven), the only married man in the group, who is seriously whipped (and not in a good way).

Through thick and thin, these guys stick together. So you know it’s only a matter of time before Harry’s problem becomes their problem, and they decide to help him rob the loan shark in order to pay off the collector. You know, one of those easy in, easy out jobs. Yeah, right. A wayward heist would be empty without some emotional baggage.

Harry has just found the right woman (Anjelica Huston, the only decent character in the film), a lonely bar owner with a sexually precocious daughter. In a different film, she would be enough to redeem Harry. Not here. Harry’s fate is already sealed.

Henshaw is bad news from frame one. Even before the money comes into play, you can sense his greed. He may be a cop and have a partner, but he’s in it for himself. Shuster is the most sympathetic of the four, a man who isn’t afraid to cry. He really doesn’t belong in this group, but this is the hand that fate dealt him.

When the heist goes south (leading to an intentionally funny encounter with a 24-hour locksmith), the men find themselves on the run from the law and each other. It doesn’t take long before distrust starts breaking up the gang.

Richey’s screenplay is filled with interesting characters and reference-heavy dialogue. Harry is obsessed by the fact that in “King Kong,” the natives would go through all of the effort to build a giant wall to keep the big ape out, yet would also build two doors big enough for him to fit through. “It just doesn’t make sense,” exclaims Harry.

Except for a couple of clumsy moments, everything in Richey’s screenplay makes sense. The characters do and say things that are relevant. Their motivations are clear. There isn’t a bad performance in the film.

Liotta is excellent as a man who not only realizes but fully understands the consequences of his actions. Presented with the opportunity to have Chicago killed, Harry refuses. Chicago is just doing his job, Harry explains. Too bad his buddies don’t share that same code of ethics.

Huston is superb as the woman who knows trouble when she sees it. I appreciated that Richey and Cannon didn’t rush their inevitable union. There’s a lot of distance between them that has to be bridged.

Filled with unexpected twists and turns, “Phoenix” is appropriately tough and gritty. Cannon does an excellent job of creating time and place, not to mention mood. He keeps the characters of the fringes of the city, and it’s here where they seem most comfortable.

Outstanding tech credits and a haunting musical score by Graeme Revell bring it all home. “Phoenix” may not be great film noir, but you can’t take your eyes off it until it gets the job done.



Ray Liotta, Anthony LaPaglia, Anjelica Huston, Daniel Baldwin, Jeremy Piven, Tom Noonan, Xander Berkely, Giancarlo Esposito, Kari Wuhrer and Brittany Murphy in a film directed by Danny Cannon. Rated R. 104 Min.


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