area theaters, starts Friday
IF THIS WERE, say, 1958, and Cop Land came out, it would star Robert Mitchum and maybe Richard Conte and John Cassavetes and a big lug like Lee Marvin. Possibly Henry Fonda would be in there too, acting against type as a snarler or a weasel. It would be a hell of a movie, probably, and the advance buzz on it would be that, compared to other films about police corruption, this would be a pretty good one. Maybe people would notice that Fonda had stretched, but the movie would mostly be seen as a "police procedural" yarn--following how cops figure out stuff.
In 1997, however, a fairly decent genre piece like Cop Land arrives with too much attention paid to the 40 pounds its otherwise typecast star, Sylvester Stallone, put on his own body so as to fit into the part. The terms "fit into" and "Stallone" tend not to appear together in print, so the scoop is how bravely the actor sacrificed his vanity. Blame the media.
On the other hand, blame Stallone. He and the movie are just as coy with the issue of his presence, since he's a celebrity of extratextual dimensions: He is his own movie whether he makes one or not. As a result, Cop Land gives him sufficient room to blend into the woodwork, which makes the whole thing sporadically goofy even as it follows a warehouse full of backstory.
Dealing with home turf and a sheriff on the frontier, Cop Land is practically a western. Through a glitch in New York's residency laws, a number of NYC cops have been allowed to live across the Hudson in the little burg of Garrison, New Jersey, where they buy homes on neat (as opposed to mean) streets. This comfort has been arranged by the easily bribed Ray (Harvey Keitel), who has made a sweet set of compromises between drug dealers, police department supervisors, everyone's lax morality, and large amounts of untraced cash.
Garrison's sheriff is Freddy Heflin (Stallone), who's part of the compromise. He finds lost dogs, stops fights between kids, and traps speeding motorists--unless they're fellow cops. As a teen, Freddy saved a girl from drowning. This proved his courage, and yet fate's cruelty made the hero deaf in one ear, which in turn has kept him off the NYC force. The girl is now a grown woman (Annabella Sciorra) married to a crooked cop (Peter Berg of Chicago Hope), while Freddy is whipped, haunted, and defeated from dawn to dusk, knowing all and telling none.
I liked the tangled motivations of Cop Land--named for a lawless territory populated by law-enforcers--and its lighting and camera angles are stylish enough to suggest a blue-collar Chinatown. (There are even a couple of cut-nose incidents.) The cast is a draw, too, at least on paper, with Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, and Michael Rapaport making a dream team of Affronted Adrenalin Guys. Put them together with Stallone, whose Rambo scripts reportedly left entire pages blank for wordless gunplay, and you've got GoodFellas, N.J.
Except that Cop Land is a genre- and role-twister. De Niro is calm and courtly as an NYPD Internal Affairs investigator who must persuade Freddy to reveal what he's seen. Keitel is neither subdued nor very compelling; he mostly yells at people. His goonish partners (one of them played by T2 villain Robert Patrick) are more impulsive and therefore scarier, but this is primarily a movie of threats and memories rather than action. Unfortunately, the cast doesn't really get a chance to live up to its billing. Only Liotta's character is a puzzle worth solving: a cop who's corrupted in his own particular way (drugs, hidden evidence, insurance fraud), and who's holding a grudge against Keitel's Ray.
The story doesn't stick with the twitchier potential of Liotta's Lt. Figgis and his slippery alliances, even though he shacks up at Freddy's house for a while. Instead, Cop Land waits for Freddy to stop moping over his deaf ear, his Springsteen LPs, and his lost chances, and tell the truth--which becomes pretty frustrating. A film can go only so far on texture and mood, and Stallone, try as he might, can't carry it through its lost momentum. For the former Rocky to speak more softly (and more often) than he ever has is interesting only up to a point.
Since he's Stallone and this is Hollywood (never mind the Miramax logo), the character has to do the right thing--and here's where director James Mangold (Heavy) delivers a tiny surprise. In the process of carrying out justice, Freddy loses nearly all his hearing, and so the climactic shoot-out is rendered virtually silent, from his aural POV (a nifty reprise of a climactic murder in The Big Combo from 1955). This effect thankfully turns attention away from Stallone's weight and even his acting--but not from the issue of genre. A cop who listens and doesn't tell, and then doesn't listen and does tell, amounts to a pretty small gift in an old, old package.
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