Perhaps you remember when James Mangold’s Cop Land came out back in 1997. Even if you didn’t go to the cinema to see it, maybe you remember the buzz around Sylvester Stallone’s performance. This was going to be the role that propelled him into the stratosphere: the flick that was going to transform Stallone from just another multi-millionaire slab of journeyman action-movie muscle into a Well Respected Actor™.
As we now know, that didn’t happen. He made a half-hearted attempt at keeping the momentum going with an ill-advised, ill-fated remake of Get Carter, and then he lumbered off into familiar terrain, revisiting his early career successes with Rocky Balboa, Rambo and the expendable The Expendables.
But back when Cop Land came out, the air around Stallone was funky with promise. It garnered him the best actor award at some Swedish film festival. For once, the prizes he was being nominated for weren’t Razzies. And then, as we will see, Stallone went and fulfilled the prophecy made for him at the end of Cop Land. You bet Mangold knew what he was doing in that last scene: Ray Liotta wanted Stallone’s part, and Stallone wanted Liotta’s. But the film would have had quite a different flavour if they’d got the roles they wanted.
In Cop Land Stallone plays Freddy Heflin, the sheriff in a suburban New Jersey town almost entirely populated by New York City cops and their families. Freddy would love to be one of their number, but his attempts to join the force are thwarted by his hearing: he’s deaf in one ear after diving into the Hudson years before to save Liz (Annabella Sciorra). Despite being madly in love with her, Freddy has to endure the daily torment of watching her suffer in her unhappy marriage to a cheating, crooked cop (Peter Berg). So far, so kitchen sink drama.
But bigger trouble is afoot in “Cop Land”. Wunderkind NYC cop Murray (Michael Rapaport) has been involved in a road rage incident on a bridge that leaves two black teenagers dead. His uncle Ray (Harvey Keitel, doing a version of the Bad Lieutenant) arrives at the scene and thinks fast, faking Murray’s suicidal leap from the bridge and smuggling Murray back to his safe haven in Jersey, where poor old Freddy ineffectually plods the streets in his horrible beige uniform.
This is the moment when, so early on, the film could have completely lost plausibility. However, writer/director Mangold is a lot smarter than that. The character’s actions are presented as acts of desperation and Ray as an arrogant prick so sure of his stranglehold on everyone in his orbit that ‘getting away with it’ never crosses his mind. When he peers over the side of the bridge and starts wailing “Oh my God! He jumped! He goddamn jumped!” I thought, “Man, that’s hammy. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Harvey Keitel be so hammy.” Then, as the plot unfolded, I thought back to that scene and it was a light bulb going off: “Oohhhh … he wasn’t even trying to be convincing. Clever!”
Mangold also introduces the first hints that this plan is not going to run smoothly from the get-go: the attending paramedics aren’t buying the ‘he jumped’ scenario and they aren’t within Ray’s sphere of influence either. Of course, for this movie to be Freddy’s story, their objections are quickly over-ruled and it’s left to Freddy to figure out how to bring Ray down, with the help of his coke-snorting best friend Figgis (Ray Liotta).
But first, his conscience needs a little push. This push arrives in the form of internal affairs investigator Moe Tilden (Robert de Niro sporting some fabbo hair), and a speech that just has to serve as a metaphor for Stallone’s role in the film, especially when you consider who Stallone’s sharing screen time with.
This is a film stuffed to overflowing with Real Actors, even in the minor parts. Ray’s wife is played by Cathy Moriarty, who was Vickie La Motta opposite de Niro in Raging Bull. Frank Vincent (Goodfellas, Raging Bull) and the late John Spencer (nominated for a Golden Globe for his role as Leo in The West Wing) crop up as Ray’s mates. That’s a lot of firepower to put into roles that barely have ten lines of dialogue between them.
Given this embarrassment of talent riches, when Robert de Niro sits across the table from Stallone and launches into a harangue that contains lines like, “I look at you and I see a man who’s waiting for an opportunity to do something” and “We’re both in law enforcement, but you’re not a cop. I’m a cop,” it’s impossible not to read the scene as a thinly veiled dig at Stallone and his career. “We’re both in movies, but you’re not an actor. I’m an actor.” At moments like this, you Stallone almost looks embarrassed – it works beautifully in context.
Mangold absolutely knows how to make the most of his leading man’s limitations. Thanks to Stallone’s famously sleepy eyes and muffled, drawling delivery there’s an (unfair) perception of him as not being the sharpest knife in the drawer. This is accentuated by the fact that Stallone seems to have allowed his physique to run to seed a little for the role, so he looks physically slow too.
Whenever Freddy looks out of his depth (which is most of the time), it’s because Stallone looks out of his depth. Whenever Ray tells Freddy to go home and mind his own business, it might as well be Keitel telling Stallone to get off his set and let the professionals get on with it. Of course this reading is coloured by pre-conceptions about the cast, but the point is that Mangold is well aware of how utterly famous they all are and that they have public images.
Even the scene where Freddy and Figgis are drinking in Freddy’s basement like a pair of aged frat boys, the lines Mangold puts in Freddy’s mouth again sound like a quasi-metaphor for Stallone’s career, especially since they’re delivered to Ray Liotta. “Saving Liz was the best thing I ever did in my life,” sighs Freddy, “But I wouldn’t do it again if it meant losing my hearing. If it meant not being a cop.” Jesus. He’s talking about trading the life of the woman he loves for his dream job. It’s not pretty, but it’s honest. Imagine Stallone and Liotta hanging out in a swanky bar with Stallone saying “Rocky was the best thing I ever did in my life, but I wouldn’t do it again. Not if it meant being typecast. If it meant not being taken seriously,” and it’s still poignant.
Unlike a bloated, ‘look at me!’ mess like The Jackal, there’s no distracting, quick-to-date technology on display. No one has a computer or a mobile phone – this might as well be the 1970s. When Freddy puts together the pieces of how Ray has managed to use his connections to the force and the Mob to create his own private town, he does it by wading through boxes of files – not by doing a quick Google search. This makes the denouement, in which Freddy single-handedly goes after Ray and his gang with guns a-blazin’, that bit more believable: of course no one arrives to help him, because there are no mobile phones or internet message boards with which to rustle up a posse.
It’s this final scene that reinforces the sense of Cop Land as an urban Western: there is more than a nod to High Noon in the way Freddy’s deputies leave him to deal with Ray and his flunkies alone (the old ‘my wife is pregnant’ saw is even given an airing). The soundtrack is reduced to white noise as Mangold conveys the severity of Freddy’s hearing impairment after one of Ray’s henchmen lets his gun off right next to Freddy’s good ear, and Freddy staggers bleeding through the deserted streets as residents pull their curtains and lock their doors.
And, of course, Freddy wins the day with a little last-minute help from Figgis. He kills Ray, he returns Murray to custody and he becomes, briefly, a hero. But he doesn’t get the girl and he doesn’t get to be a cop: in the final scene, Freddy is staring wistfully across the Hudson at the city he will never get to patrol when his deputy pulls up and informs him that there’s a jack-knifed truck up the road. As their patrol cars speed away and the credits roll, it’s almost like Mangold is holding up a sign saying: “So you thought Stallone might have a career as a serious dramatic actor after this? Nah. Take it from me: he’ll be back doing Rocky and Rambo rehashes in no time.”