Cop Land (1997) – Review


Over the years, Sylvester Stallone’s career has taken more dips than a communal pot of salsa at a Nacho festival and yet, like the actor’s most beloved role of Rocky Balboa, the actor has continually struggled back to his feet before the ten count.
However, after taking an almighty drubbing thanks to 1995’s bullet-spewing, comic book, camp-fest Judge Dredd, it looked like the legendary action hero seemed finally down for the count and was in dire need of reinvention and so Stallone went back to his roots as a serious actor and dropped the iconic physique in order to play Freddy Heflin, a rumpled, bloated, sad sack of a town Sheriff who finds himself drowning in police corruption. However, Stallone’s gear shift from iron-biceped action stud back to serious actor wasn’t going to be undertaken alone as he was not only being directed by future Logan, Indiana Jones and Star Wars director, James Mangold, but he was surrounded by some of the greatest actors of his generation.


Garrison, New Jersey is a town for cops, run by cops thanks to some nifty loopholing performed by the officers from the NYPD’s 37th Precinct who have been allowed to live outside the city and thus are practically untouchable by such outside forces as the internal affairs division. Garrison’s sheriff department is run by cop-wannabe, Freddy Heflin, a sad-eyed dreamer who saw his dreams of being a cop smashed after being rendered partially deaf after performing a heroic rescue as a young man, but the guy who actually calls the shots is Lt. Ray Donlan, the bull of a officer who cooked up the idea of Garrison in the first place.
Of course, due to his unique position, Donlan and his cardre of fellow boys in blue are as corrupt as they come with ties to the mob that frustrated I.A. agent Moe Tilden is powerless to investigate, however, when Donlan’s celebrated nephew is involved in a drunken, off-duty shooting that accidently leaves two unarmed, black youths dead, the lawless lawman realises he now has a sizable chink in his armour. Getting one of his flunkies to try and plant a gun and hiding his nephew away and faking his death, Donlan’s original plan is to smuggle his relative out of Garrison, but the added heat has brought a spotlight onto his town that may very well uncover all of his shady actions.
Caught between all of these points is Freddy, a man who idolizes Ray, but who’s conscience is working overtime when he spots the supposedly dead nephew one night, hiding in the back seat of Donlan’s car as the spirit him back into Garrison. Offering opposing views is a desperate Tilden who wants Freddy to give up his heroes and Figgis, a bitter dealer who was once part of Donlan’s inner circle – will our doughy hero do the right thing and finally uphold the law for real?


Watching Cop Land now, it’s tough to imagine how much of a change of pace it was back in the 90’s. Packing a cast worthy of Martin Scorsese himself (De Niro? Keitel? Liotta?) into a movie and having them surround Stallone may not seem that odd now in the days where Creed garnered the actor arguably the best reviews of his career, but back in ’97 it seemed like a huge risk. Reviews at the time were kind, but some pointed out that the man who would be Rambo seemed a little out of his depth, his performance getting somewhat swallowed up when placed next to such giants as Goodfellas’ Henry Hill, Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle and Reservoir Dogs’ Mr. White. However, on closer inspection, it seems that reviewers were still in the mindset that we were watching Stallone the star and not Stallone the actor, and when taken in this context, he does a near perfect job. You see, Freddy Heflin is supposed to be swallowed up by these guys and, for most of the movie is a confused, conflicted guy who is nothing more than an overweight pawn in a game he simply isn’t qualified for. It’s because of this dithering and his MIA self respect that things have been allowed to go so far and Stallone’s quiet, underplayed performance makes perfect sense as he’s bullied, browbeaten, gaslit, marginalised and underestimated by virtually everyone around him. People at the time focus more on the forty pounds of chonk the actor put on to convincingly play this naive loser, but it’s the things Stallone doesn’t do that makes Freddy so poignant as the actor drops all traces of ego to convincingly play as pathetic – yet empathetic – as possible.


Elsewhere, everyone else predictably brings the goods with DeNiro and Keitel bringing layers to supporting characters they could probably play in their sleep at that point, but it’s weirdly Ray Liotta as the permanently disheveled Figgis and Robert Patrick wearing a genuinely fearsome cop moustache as Donlan’s right hand man who stand out the most and a run-in between the two that involves a particularly inventive use of a dart is nicely memorable. The rest of the impressive cast, which includes Michael Rappaport, Peter Berg, Janeane Garofalo, Annabella Sciorra and, amusingly, The Sopranos’ Tony Sirico, all hit their required notes with ease as the ensemble all pull together to get the plot to its violent resolution.
Despite the stacked cast, the other factor – alongside Stallone’s efforts – that succeeds in making Cop Land so satisfyingly solid is the job done by writer/director James Mangold. Some would have you believe that his second movie is something of a neo-noir, but once you take Mangold’s subsequent filmography into account, one that includes a remake of 3:10 To Yuma and multiple cracks at Hugh Jackman channelling Clint Eastwood in multiple Wolverine movies, it becomes blinding obvious that Cop Land is actually a western that comes complete with a corrupt town, a redemption-hungry sheriff and even a climactic shootout to seal the deal.
Admittedly unflashy, Cop Land is nevertheless defiantly solid with its meat and potatoes plotting and level tone making it nicely resistant to the fact it around twenty five years old. In fact, the fact that it’s a mob movie that swaps out flashy suits and discussions about italian cooking for guys who are supposed to toe that thin blue line means that during these times where we eye our protectors with unease adds tragic resonance to proceedings.


There’s some slight issues of course, with the main one being that there’s a hell of a lot of plot for a movie that isn’t even two hours long, but under its slightly cluttered nature lies one of those 90’s movies that isn’t mentioned nearly often enough that details the seedy underbelly of the thin blue crime…


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