Cop Land

If you put Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet, and John Sayles together in a room and told them to come up with a modern suburban Western, the result might be Cop Land. The sophomore effort of writer-director James Mangold, Cop Land has the cast of a Scorsese film, the muckraking police-corruption plot of a Lumet film, and the leisurely pace and character focus of a Sayles film. If you admire those directors (as I do), you might enjoy the movie enough to see it twice (as I did). Be warned, though, that Mangold duplicates those filmmakers’ flaws, too.

The film is set in the fictional Garrison, New Jersey, a town populated almost entirely by New York cops (Mangold based it on the real-life New York suburb of Orange County). A quote by Juvenal comes to mind: “Who watches the watchmen?” Well, the town is officially policed by sheriff Freddy Heflin (Sylvester Stallone), who lost his hearing in one ear while saving a woman from drowning; that prevented him from becoming a “real” cop in the big city. But Garrison is unofficially owned and operated by Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel), a mob-connected cop who colonized Garrison as a dirty cop’s paradise and installed the harmless sad sack Freddy as its peacekeeper.

Stallone, who gained 40 pounds for his role, uses his new physical awkwardness and insecurity around “real” actors to convey Freddy’s self-hating shame around “real” cops. It’s a touching performance with barely a hint of aggression. Nobody in Garrison takes Freddy seriously, least of all Freddy himself. Denied a true cop’s life by one moment of heroism, Freddy is now too frightened to stick his head out of his shell (note the stuffed turtle Mangold plants). But a blatant instance of police corruption — an accidental and possibly racially motivated double killing, and the subsequent cover-up — might be enough to jolt Freddy out of his passive funk.

I sympathize with some of the criticism of Cop Land: There’s too much plot and too many characters, and the film needed to be either streamlined or lengthened. At times, it’s like three episodes of NYPD Blue jammed together and whittled down to feature length. Some of the best actors suffer from the plot overload; Janeane Garofalo, as Freddy’s deputy, has a hard, flat way of saying “Hey, that’s not necessary” to a cop who’s just called her “cupcake,” but that’s all she does that I remember even after my second viewing.

Some other actors, though, take advantage of the script’s series of confrontations and grandstanding. Robert De Niro, looking like Rupert Pupkin ten years later, is sour-faced and funny as the Internal Affairs cop who’s out to nab Keitel. Ray Liotta, in the stand-out performance as a conflicted cop, has an easy and almost gentle rapport with Stallone; Liotta’s bitter city cop acts like Freddy’s protective older brother. What lured me back to Cop Land again were these performances and the film’s aching, authentic tone of regret. Stallone, who has wasted far too many years in meaningless action and unfunny comedies, may understand all too well Freddy’s pain at the path not taken. Freddy proves himself in the end; Stallone proves himself long before that.

Explore posts in the same categories: drama

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