Audiences haven’t gotten a lot of Sylvester Stallone in an ensemble cast. Sure, there was a fairly large gathering of stars in the Expendables flicks, but Sly was the star of those films, full stop. Cop Land came after a string of mild box office successes and a couple of flops. Sly’s stock in Hollywood was on the downswing, and when this movie came out, it was touted as a comeback, of sorts.
From 1997, Cop Land is the second feature from writer/director James Mangold. A low-budget film, members of the cast believed enough in the project to be paid scale. Back in 1997, this was somewhat of a selling point for the film. That, and the fact that Sly put on about 40 pounds for his role as beleaguered small town sheriff Freddy Henlin.
Freddy is the senior law enforcement officer of Garrison, New Jersey. The fictional town of Garrison is a small incorporation just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. It was created when a group of NYPD officers found a loophole in the city’s rules that would allow them to live outside of the five boroughs and surrounding counties in New York State. Once ensconced, they set up Freddy as sheriff, because Freddy always wanted to be a New York City cop, but couldn’t pass the physical due to an earlier injury.
Freddy may be the sheriff, but it is the NYPD officers in Garrison, led by Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel), who really run the town. The whole bunch, in fact, is corrupt. They all work out of the same precinct in the city, and they have a partnership with one of the city’s mob families to look the other way in exchange for sweetheart mortgages from a bank owned by the mob. It’s a hell of a setup, but it all comes under threat when one of the cops who lives in Garrison, Murray ‘Superboy’ Babitch (Michael Rapaport), shoots a pair of black teenagers to death on the George Washington Bridge. It’s the kind of shooting that makes headlines, and the Garrison cops fear that once Superboy is sat down in an interrogation room, it will only be a matter of time before the subject turns from the dead teenagers to Donlan and company’s activities in Garrison.
In fact, the whole bunch is already on the radar of internal affairs detective Moe Tilden (Robert De Niro). Tilden tries to enlist Freddy in his efforts to bust Donlan by pricking Freddy’s conscience. Freddy is a good guy and he wants to be a good cop. He has been the sheriff for years, and during that time he has become expert at looking the other way. But, this thing with Superboy has made him question the bargain he has made with the officers who live in Garrison. To Freddy, it’s one thing to ignore speeding or to make sure any black people from the surrounding area know they aren’t welcome (so much for Freddy being a good guy), but now it seems murder is on the table. Freddy, inadvisably, it must be said, decides to take down the dirty cops. He’s even helped in his efforts by one of the corrupt group — Gary Figgis (Ray Liotta). Figgis has had a falling out with the group because of a past incident with his deceased partner, and he’s looking for a way out of the town before something bad happens to him.
Freddy is in way over his head. His skills as a police officer are more of the broken windows policing variety. Garrison exists literally in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge, in one of the most heavily populated areas of the country, yet it is a small town. That’s not uncommon in the Northeast, where there are plenty of nooks and crannies where small communities can hide. As such, Freddy doesn’t know much about real policing, or the risks involved when taking on a group like Donlan’s. After all, the intent in hiring Freddy was to find a cop who could be controlled — who maybe didn’t have the competence for police work.
Things keep getting tense for Freddy and Donlan. There are a couple twists here and there, leading to a finale that does a wild job of wrapping up the story. It’s the perfect accompaniment to the growing tension in the film. There really isn’t any point in the film where there isn’t tension, in fact.
Much about Cop Land can appear rote upon a first viewing. Over the two decades since its release, I’ve seen this film a number of times. I’ve alternately been impressed with it and underwhelmed. In this last viewing before writing this review, I enjoyed it as much as I ever have. It’s a gritty cop flick not unfamiliar to many viewers. It uses a combination of cliché and a smattering of surprises to tell its story, and it is an engaging one.
Even without its original contributions to the crime and thriller genres, this film succeeds with its performances. Sly’s was the most visible, owing to his method-like weight gain. As for the performance itself, Sly did embody Freddy to the point where I saw the character before the actor. That’s not something Sly did in the majority of his films, seeming to be more comfortable in his own skin than someone else’s. The purpose of his performance seemed to be to become the anti-Sly. Freddy is out of shape (although even fat Sly still has muscles under the flab) and unmotivated. He pines for things he does not have and cannot muster the will to try and get them. He is very much the opposite of all those motivational speeches Sly’s characters give in other films. It all works quite well, but Sly takes Freddy’s meekness just a little too far. Still, this is among the best he has ever performed on film.
As for the other main members of cast, they were as professional as they could be. Being a crime film, De Niro was at his best. Keitel was continuing his good 1990s run of performances, and Liotta got another chance to act strung out, when he has always been at his best. There are plenty of other cast members I could cite, but in general, there wasn’t a bad performance in the bunch, although Superboy could get on a viewer’s nerves.
Mangold, once upon a time, was an intriguing director, and it was with this film that he came to prominence. He has since been snatched up by the superhero industrial complex, and that’s a shame. He was not a bold experimenter when it came to the films he made, but there was always very intriguing stuff going on in his films. Cop Land is no different. It takes well-worn concepts and plot elements, and freshens them up enough to make a very good movie.