After years of doing little but action and adventure flicks, Sylvester Stallone apparently felt he couldn't keep playing Rocky and Rambo forever and chose a different career path with 1997's "Cop Land." He chose to act. And it worked. Stallone more than holds his own against an all-star ensemble cast; indeed, he soundly anchors the picture.
The funny thing about "Cop Land" is that I didn't remember it being this good a film the first time around. When I saw it on cable in the late nineties, it seemed to have a good premise that fell apart in the middle. This time, however, whether it's because the new DVD contains a Director's Cut with about twelve minutes of additional footage, I don't know, but I enjoyed it from beginning to end. Maybe it's finally the movie the filmmaker intended all along.
Although it is ostensibly an action yarn, it is really a psychological study of moral decay, ethical decision-making, facing oneself, recognizing and understanding one's enemies, taking life by the throat, and standing up for right. If that sounds like a setup for a typical Hollywood Western, it's because writer-director James Mangold says he wanted initially to make a Western but chose instead to do a modern cop thriller in the manner of an old Western. Sly Stallone plays the sheriff who must eventually face down the bad guys alone, as in "High Noon," and Harvey Keitel plays the evil leader of the local desperados. Just as "High Noon" set a new mark for psychological Westerns, so does "Cop Land" set a high mark for crime dramas.
Stallone plays Sheriff Freddy Heflin, an over-the-hill good guy who once saved a woman from drowning at the risk of his own life but who admits he would never do such a thing today. Freddy is the sheriff of a small town in New Jersey--Garrison, population 1280--just across the river from New York City. He longs to be a New York policeman, but having suffered ear damage during the woman's rescue, he was continually found unacceptable for big-city duty. Apparently, the only reason he has the job in Garrison is because of Ray Donlan (Keitel), the NYPD honcho who runs the town and owns Heflin.
The thing is, a bunch of New York cops are on the take from the Mob, with Donlan their unspoken boss, and to remain out of reach of the NYPD Internal Affairs Department, the cops all bought houses across the river in Garrison, houses financed by the Mob. The policemen takes bribes and look the other way when the Mob wants its way in the city; and Freddy looks the other way when the policemen want their way in Garrison. It's a cozy relationship, and when the movie opens, it's been going on for a decade.
But things go wrong. They always do, or we wouldn't have a story. One of the crooked cops, Murray Babitch (Michael Rapaport), unintentionally kills two black teenagers in a car on his way home to Garrison. His buddies attempt to cover for him by first trying to plant drugs in the teens' car; when that doesn't work, they persuade Babitch to fake a suicide in the river and then hide out. But when things go bad, they get worse, and before long Babitch's buddies figure they need to bump him off before they get in trouble themselves. When Sheriff Freddy gets wind of all this, he has to make a decision about just how far he's willing to sink in turning a blind eye to the corruption around him.
Admittedly, the best part of the film is the performances, but the plot and pacing work, too. The cast is heaven-sent. Stallone put on forty extra pounds for the role in order to look the part of a guy who doesn't care anymore. A shot of his stomach as the normally chiseled Stallone rolls over in bed and reveals a pot gut is meant to elicit a gasp from the audience, and it does. Shades of De Niro in "Raging Bull." More to the point, Stallone actually conveys a feeling of despair and resignation. We can tell Freddy is at heart a good man, but he's become passive, morally and spiritually weakened, given to indecision and apathy. All of these feeling register on Stallone's face and in his behavior, a fine and convincing performance that is about as far from Rocky or Rambo as he can get.
Supporting him, Keitel is his usual assured villain, verbally abusing people, pushing them around, all the while pretending to be a "good" suburban neighbor. Ray Liotta plays Gary Figgis, another dishonest cop but one who is seen to be internally fighting against his dark side. Robert Patrick is Jack Rucker (unaccountably credited as "Jack Duffy" in both the accompanying documentary and at IMDb but listed as "Jack Rucker" in the movie's closing credits). He's perhaps the meanest of the bunch of mean-spirited NY cops, and it's clear he'll do anything Donlan tells him to do, including murder. Annabella Sciorra plays Liz Randone, the wife of one of the crooked cops and the woman Freddy saved from drowning. Freddy secretly loves her, carries a torch for her, and it's because of her that he never married. Peter Berg is Liz's husband, a creepy cop carrying on an affair with Donlan's wife. And Janeane Garofalo is Deputy Cindy Betts, Freddy's right-hand man--er, woman--a do-gooder out of her league.
Probably the only actor in the film underutilized is Robert De Niro as Lt. Moe Tilden, the Internal Affairs officer investigating Babitch's alleged jump. Tilden knows it all smells to high heaven, but his jurisdiction ends at the city limits, and he needs a reluctant Freddy to help him nail the bad guys. Unfortunately, De Niro has little to do but show up, never really contributing much to his supporting part except to look and act grim and determined.
It's at the film's midway point that things begin getting more melodramatic than necessary, but with a little extra help from the Director's Cut, it all seems plausible. There are extramarital affairs among the cops and their wives; the burning of a house and the death of one cop's girlfriend; people conveniently dying; and a good deal of moralizing and just plain talking.
But the ending saves the day. It's straight out of "Shane" and "High Noon." No one wants Freddy to do anything about the crime and corruption in Garrison, no one will help him when the time comes to do the right and proper and honorable thing. Freddy becomes Will Kane, having to face Frank Miller and his gang at the stroke of twelve. As I wrote about "High Noon" some years ago, it's the ultimate test of the mythic Code of the West: One man standing up for right against all odds because it's the right thing to do. The final showdown might have been staged by Fred Zinnemann, Howard Hawks, or John Ford.
With the exception of the ending, though, don't expect an action thriller. Just expect to be entertained.
The video quality is excellent in a widescreen presentation that measures a ratio of about 1.75:1 across a standard television. The picture is bright and colorful when it needs to be, solidly black when the occasion demands. Hues are deep and rich, rendered via a decent bit rate, and definition is excellent. The transfer does reveal a slight amount of grain, some facial tones are a touch dark, and horizontal lines can sometimes shimmer. Otherwise, a fine picture.
To complement the video, the Dolby Digital 5.1 does a good as well. The dynamic range is everything one could want, very wide, very strong on tonal and loudness contrasts, with strong impact. Bass is deep and authoritative; balance is natural; dialogue is clear. The surround speakers are also used to advantage, although not excessively. A helicopter flyover here and there, gunshots, voices, musical ambiance are well directed to specific spots in the room and add subtly to one's appreciation of the action on screen.
I enjoyed the bonus items the disc offers. There's a good audio commentary with director James Mangold, producer Cathy Konrad, and actors Sylvester Stallone and Robert Patrick, which unfortunately for lack of time I was not able to listen to for long. There are a pair of deleted scenes with optional commentary. There's a "Shootout" storyboard sequence. And there's a fourteen-minute featurette, "Cop Land: The Making of an Urban Western," in which writer-director Mangold explains that the town of Garrison, NJ, was supposed to represent the stereotypical Western town of old movie legend in a parable about good and evil. Viewed that way, as I've said earlier, the film makes more sense. Then, there are some Sneak Peaks at other Buena Vista releases but no trailer for "Cop Land"; twenty scene selections; English and French spoken languages; and English subtitles for the hearing impaired.
An interesting central idea forming what its author says is a fable of the Old West, a terrific cast, some fine acting, and a gripping story combine to make "Cop Land" an above-average crime drama. Its emphasis on character, interior exploration, and moral dilemmas in addition to a bit of good old-fashioned action is unusual in any Hollywood film, let alone one starring Sly Stallone. The fact that it was made on a very small budget proves Hollywood can still supply a world-class product without a ton of special effects. "Cop Land" may never achieve classic status, but it's an enjoyable, offbeat film experience.