I remember watching COP LAND when it came out in video. I was fifteen, maybe sixteen, crammed in a dark bedroom with several other horny teenagers. Needless to say, I don't remember much about it, except that I didn't like it. Confusing and uneventful are the two adjectives that come to mind. Sylvester Stallone fans urged me to revisit that movie during Stallone Week and it's a good thing I did. COP LAND is a smart, low-key movie that requires active participation from its viewers. It's still battling for legitimacy close to twenty years later, but it sure it worth classic status consideration. Yep, I'd go that far. Plus, viewers are right, acting-wise, it is the best performance of Sylvester Stallone's career.
The city of Garrison, New Jersey was created by cops and is populated by cops. The sheriff is a man named Freddy Heflin (Sylvester Stallone), a local hero who saved the prom queen (Annabella Sciorra) from drowning as a teenager. Freddy always wanted to be a policeman, but he perforated his eardrum doing his heroic deed and had to settle for sheriff. His quiet existence is turned upside down when hero cop ''Superboy'' Murray Babitch (the excellent Michael Rapaport) kills two men in a misunderstanding that had racial undertones. Babitch reportedly commits suicide, but nobody has seen him jump off the bridge and his body was never recovered. Internal pressure at the NYPD starts building around the city and the quiet life Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel) had created for cops in Garrison is going down in flames. So is poor Freddy's, caught in the crossfire.
COP LAND is an oddly successful movie. It's kind of understandable why it didn't become a classic like GOODFELLAS or even just a cult hit. Don't get me wrong, it's a great story and even a great film, by my standards, but it's dissonant to its own market. It uses a typecasted action hero (Stallone) and typecasted mobsters (Keitel, Liotta and De Niro) in a super intellectual movie. See, COP LAND is a bona fide, contemporary film noir. It doesn't rely on what its lead actors are expected to rely upon in their typical branded movies. It's all deception, smoke and mirrors and crumbling sense of reality. It's a movie about the latent violence of the American dream. Stallone doesn't kill much people in it * and plays a rather deep character, which is destabilizing. Robert De Niro is actually a straight IA cop. Harvey Keitel is not a tough, but fundamentally moral guy. COP LAND doesn't deliver anything you'd expect or want from its cast, but it does deliver a great story. Isn't that all you should ask out of a film?
Deep? I meant derp. Just kidding. Freddy is a simple, but conflicted man.
Sylvester Stallone's performance is more than meets the eye, here. He's not the worst actor. He's not a great talent, he's rather limited, but he can actually act. He gives glimpes of his talent, even in his stupidest movies. Stallone manages a few soulful gazes in COBRA and even corrals some tears in RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II. It's quick, but it's there. Freddy Heflin though, is a textured character, who is struggling with just about every moral decisions he took in his life, because he is surrounded by painfully immoral people. Stallone transmits Freddy's inner battles through a litany of micro-expressions and avoidant behavior. I don't know who is responsible for such a subtle, layered performance. Maybe it's writer and director James Mangold. I mean, he didn't transform Stallone into Daniel Day-Lewis for a movie, but the unusual usage of Stallone's acting range kind of overshadowed his co-stars' game a little. It's often the only thing people remember about COP LAND. Not that it's bad, but it's a movie that relies on strong writing first and foremost.
COP LAND was released before James Mangold's thirty-fifth birthday. It strikes me as a labor of love, uncorrupted by Hollywoodian marketing imperatives. It's a subtle, yet powerful and cohesive film noir, about the ruthless, oppressive nature of power. I'll give you that I'm a sucker for rotten cops movies, but COP LAND should be considered a classic in the subgenre. It's not a spectacular film, bullets and explosions come in limited numbers, but it's a film that addresses your intellect and your moral compass. Yep. I said that. A Sylvester Stallone movie addresses your intellect and moral compass. Let that sink in a little. Then go revisit COP LAND. Maybe it failed to make film noir cool again, but it's still a quality film, no matter what expectations if might have eluded.
* But he racks some kills, don't worry!