Friday, April 13, 2012

Overlooked Gems #29: Cop Land

Grade: 71 (B)

It seems absurd now, but once upon a time Sylvester Stallone was compared to Marlon Brando. The actor’s breakthrough role in Rocky displayed a sensitivity behind the muscles and sheer physical power. Time has shown that Stallone has a slightly narrower range than Brando, to say the least. Stallone’s early promise gave way to dumb, often jingoistic action movies that built the actor up as an unrelatable, superhuman killing machine. It’s unlikely that Stallone will ever return to character-driven work on a regular basis, but once in a while there’s a happy exception like 1997’s Cop Land.

Freddy Heflin (Stallone) is a small town sheriff in Garrison, New Jersey. Freddy always wanted to be an NYPD cop, but a heroic action from his youth left him deaf in one year, and now he’ll never go further than his small Jersey town. Freddy is friends with a number of New York cops, most notably Lt. Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel), a corrupt cop with mob ties. When Donlan’s nephew, hero cop Murray “Superboy” Babitch (Micheal Rapaport), accidentally kills two African-American teens (thinking they had shot at him), Donlan covers it up. Internal Affairs Investigator Moe Tilden (Robert De Niro) knows there’s something off about the case and asks Freddy to help him bring Ray to justice, but Freddy idolizes his New York friends and doesn’t want to turn on them. When Freddy finally decides to do right, he’s got the whole New York Police Department against him, with only coke-addicted cop Gary “Figgsy” Figgs (Ray Liotta) on his side.

Cop Land is directed by James Mangold, a journeyman director whose works range from well-liked (3:10 to Yuma) to good enough (Walk the Line) to utterly forgettable (Knight and Day). Mangold’s first two films, Heavy and Cop Land, however, showed promise that the director might make solid, character-driven films for the rest of his career. Mangold handles the cast well, filling parts with respected character actors like Rapaport, Robert Patrick (as a dirty cop), Annabella Sciorra (as Stallone’s love interest), and Peter Berg (as Sciorra’s cop husband). Some of the roles feel a bit undeveloped- why bring Noah Emerich and Janeane Garofalo in if you’re hardly going to use them?- and the film’s final shoot-out isn’t particularly imaginative, but what Cop Land lacks in depth and action theatrics it makes up for as a character study for Stallone.

Stallone, like Keitel and De Niro, was a New Yorker, but he never got the same attention they did (with reason). There’s a sense of idolization beyond the film’s cop characters. Stallone’s sadness feels real. Freddy is the kind of character Stallone should have been playing for years- soft-spoken, uncomfortable in his hulking body (which is slightly flabby), and full of yearning to do something great. Keitel and De Niro (both quite good here) have respectable jobs. Even his coke-addicted friend Figgsy (Liotta, whose career may have gone down, but Goodfellas still gets him respect) has more respect. Everyone talks down to Freddy. He just wants to do good, and when he finally gets his chance, he has to choose between staying loyal to his “friends” and doing the right thing. It’s too bad that Cop Land didn’t lead to more character roles for Stallone. This guy could have really been something.

NOTE: This film is available on Netflix Instant.

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