Cop Land (1997)
Remember when Sylvester Stallone used to act? It's been a while. Sometime back before he became a one-man sequel machine, before *Rocky VII* and *Rambo XIV* and all the variations on the theme of big, bellowing invincibility. About twenty years back, in fact, when he had a surprise hit in an influential little film about an underdog boxer achieving the American Dream. That was before the actor swapped character roles for caricature roles.
Stallone has gone big to go small in *Cop Land*, adding about 40 pounds of flab to his superhero frame to play Freddy Heflin, a small town sheriff with big city problems. This bit of stunt-casting backfires on both the actor and the film in this case, because Stallone has done such a thorough job of creating a movie persona around his pumped up physique that to see him flabby and ineffectual is a constant distraction -- one can't help but be conscious of his obvious bid for thespian respectability.
The search for respect is something Stallone has in common with Freddy, so it's a bit surprising that *Cop Land* isn't more effective and engaging. Freddy is the shambling, paunchy sheriff of Garrison, a tiny New Jersey town colonized by cops from New York's 37th Precinct. Appointed to his sinecure post by Garrison's founder, a shady cop named Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel), Freddy is an NYPD wannabe; he lost the hearing in one ear after rescuing a girl from drowning, an act of heroism that cost him his dream. Now he's put down and pushed around by Garrison's clique of cops, shuffling about town doing good deeds and turning a blind eye, and a deaf ear, to the dirty deals going down around him.
Freddy is a sad, lonely man, an outsider in his own home, creeping around the edges, watching, but never participating. He spends most of his time under the George Washington Bridge, staring across the Hudson at the bright lights of the big city. All that begins to change when Garrison's tribe of cops starts to cannibalize itself. When Murray "Superboy" Babbage (Michael Rappaport), an off-duty officer, wrongfully shoots two joyriding teens after a traffic incident on the GWB, his precinct pals, including uncle Ray, make it look like he jumped from the bridge. From that point on, *Cop Land*'s plot meanders all over the map, turning on insurance fraud, murder, mobsters, marital infidelity, cops on the take, cops on the lam and cops on drugs. Freddy isn't so much in the middle of this muddle, but on the outside, trying to jam all the pieces together with his big sausage fingers.
The pieces don't really fit, making *Cop Land* disjointed and alienating. Writer-director James Mangold (*Heavy*) crafts a superficially precise story with *Cop Land* -- every tangent has an obvious set-up and follow-through, and all are weighted equally, as if a neat resolution could possibly tie everything together at the end. There are no red herrings here, no trails that don't lead precisely where they should, no incidents that don't point to some obvious wrongdoing. There's a whole lot of malfeasance in Garrison, all unrelated, much of it unlikely, but somehow, Freddy stumbles onto the whole shebang while looking for Murray.
All the complicated overplotting serves mostly as a distraction that tends to trivialize the real story of *Cop Land*, which is Freddy's internal struggle for truth, justice, redemption and self-respect. Freddy, suffering mightily from an inferiority complex, mopes and mopes until he's pushed into action. Even then he doesn't exactly spring into action, but sort of waddles into it, eventually realizing that he's more than equal to the big city cops, that he's actually better than they are. This character-driven part of the story is reminiscent of *Heavy*, Mangold's first (and better) feature about an overweight pizza chef who blossoms in crisis. *Cop Land* is a bigger film, but it lacks the quiet power of *Heavy*.
Freddy is the kind of role that requires really good, psychological acting. It's a subdued, subtle role where most of the action takes place behind an expressive, revealing face. Stallone only scratches the surface of the part, but he does achieve a touching humanity, which in itself is a refreshing change from the personality-free slabs of muscle he typically plays. With his hangdog face and nerdy uniform, Freddy is sad, sympathetic and likable, but Stallone never really comes alive in the role until the sheriff rather abruptly becomes a gun-toting, justice-wielding Old West-style lawman in the imaginative, nicely staged finale. Likewise Mangold's directing, which is fairly bland and workmanlike throughout the film, but finally sparks briefly to life at the end.
*Cop Land*'s all-star cast also includes Robert DeNiro as the jaded Internal Affairs investigator who stirs Freddy from his lethargy; Ray Liotta is Freddy's pal Figgis, a conflicted, one-man good cop/bad cop routine; Annabella Sciorra is the girl Freddy once rescued, now married to dirty cop Peter Berg. Stallone is the only actor in the bunch doing anything against type in *Cop Land*. DeNiro, Keitel and Liotta, in particular, are playing parts that they could do in their sleep.
The feeling that everybody is just going through the motions permeates *Cop Land*. The movie is essentially a modern-day psychological Western, complete with saloon, set in the wilds of suburban New Jersey. But *Cop Land* lacks the power, vitality and drama of that genre -- a drab raised ranch is a poor substitute for the OK Corral and there isn't a Gary Cooper in sight.