Shoot the Sheriff
The cops in Cop Land carry on like a bunch of goombahs. On the take from the Mob, they mimic the Mob. The fuzzy line dividing cops and crooks is the subject of many a strong police movie, but Cop Land goes a step further -- it says there is no line. I don't think I've ever seen another movie or TV show in which just about every policeman we see is a species of asshole. Wear a uniform, be a dirtbag.
The one exception is Sylvester Stallone's Freddy Heflin -- but then again, he's just a sheriff, and he operates out of Garrison, New Jersey. Garrison is Cop Land, a quiet, tree-lined residential community settled by droves of sleazeball New York police to escape the city's horrors. Their homes are financed by Mob-owned banks.
Freddy is deaf in one ear, an injury he suffered as a teenager when he pulled a drowning girl out of her submerged car. Prevented by his disability from joining the NYPD, he's settled for being a New Jersey peacekeeper lugging his overweight bulk around town doing little make-work rescue missions -- he's like a pretend cop in a theme park. Garrison's NYPD residents, headed by Harvey Keitel's Ray Donlan, are the town's true kingpins. Their contempt for Freddy is the contempt of bully boys for a weakling, except that, because they're in cahoots with the Mob, they need this weakling to look the other way. So they give Freddy just enough respect to make him feel legit.
Writer/director James Mangold has a thing about lugubrious ovoid palookas. His first feature, Heavy, was about a poor soul who, alas, was heavy. In Cop Land, Stallone gets the sad-sack treatment -- although it must be said that fellow cast members Ray Liotta and Cathy Moriarty and even Keitel also occupy more screen space than usual. (Mangold must really know how to cater a set.)
In Stallone's case, the weight he put on for the role is intended to give him a common-man heft. No more chiseled abs and steroid-pumped pecs; Freddy is Everylug. And just in case we don't get the message, Stallone makes him kind of slow in the head too. Freddy's pilot light is dim, but that's supposed to make him more virtuous than the sharpie thug-cops in his midst. Apparently if he were highly intelligent, he couldn't stand in for all us dull galoots in the audience. So Stallone plays Freddy like Lennie in Of Mice and Men -- you half expect him to tend the rabbits. He's a gentle, live-alone giant whose hearing loss seems to have a lot in common with a frontal lobotomy.
I realize we're not supposed to feel this way about Freddy. His long, slow climb to glory is meant to have mythic power. His neutered tenderness -- he harbors a flame for the woman he once rescued (Annabella Sciorra) -- is supposed to be the height of chivalry. But there's something unseemly about the way this film fronts Freddy as a poster boy for rectitude -- as if anybody cannier were automatically suspect. This Gump-ism in the movies is becoming a drag. Is being stunted the only way Hollywood can conceive of being righteous? When Woody Allen staged a village idiots' convention in Love and Death, he was being funny. If a filmmaker such as Mangold or Robert Zemeckis staged that same scene today, we'd be watching the stirrings of a human potential movement.
Stallone, of course, started his career playing mumbly, good-natured palookas, and if you look back on Rocky or The Lords of Flatbush today, a genuine sweetness comes through; he was a generous big-hearted performer whose rumblings had their own subverbal eloquence. But Stallone got scary fast; the subsequent Rocky movies were sinew-snapping growlfests, and his Rambo was a scowling action toy.
Stallone became a world-class action star in (mostly) dreadful movies, but he didn't seem particularly happy to be in them. Perhaps he felt trapped; every time he tried to change his image -- in such bummers as Rhinestone or Oscar -- the public turned off.
Now that he's getting too long in the tooth to play action toys, he's again attempting a career switcheroo. But he chose the wrong vehicle in Cop Land. It's too soggy, too humorless. Stallone, in his early movies and often in interviews, can be very funny playing off his lugginess -- he's a sport. But his Freddy is just a dopey do-gooder, and Stallone doesn't do much more than try to make the dopiness faintly endearing. The flab seems to have gone to his brain; in an effort to make Freddy as un-Rambo-like as possible, Stallone blanks himself out altogether. It's one of the most blah performances I've ever seen from a major star.
Mangold has modeled Cop Land heavily on Scorsese Land. Not only do Keitel, Liotta and Moriarty turn up -- there's also Robert De Niro, playing an internal affairs cop. This alumni society mostly serves to remind us of better times in better movies. Like a lot of directors with Scorsese-on-the-brain (and like Scorsese himself in his recent work), Mangold substitutes attitude for content. And what content there is I found objectionable: The big, bad cops in Garrison are rotten, but it's the liberal courts that made them so by giving criminals all the perks. Welcome to Cop Land. Next stop, Dirty Harry Land.
At the end of Dirty Harry, Eastwood's Harry Callahan threw away his badge in disgust, just like Gary Cooper in High Noon. And wouldn't you know Cop Land is full of High Noon references too? Freddy, all alone, stands up to the bad guys when his deputies desert him. Mangold wants to blend the Scorsese crime thriller with the socially conscious Western, and it doesn't parse. We end up sorting out all the film references instead of being drawn into the drama.
And when we are drawn in, we want out. Near the start of the film, Ray's cop nephew Murray (Michael Rapaport) shoots dead two black joy riders after they sideswipe and then apparently point a rifle at him. But it turns out the rifle wasn't a rifle at all. Fearing criminal charges and a racial vendetta against the NYPD, Murray, with his cop buddies' assistance, stages his own death by faking a jump off the George Washington Bridge. But then things get too hot, and Ray and company want to eliminate Murray. Behind all this is the notion that white policemen can't get a break in a system that kowtows to racial pressure groups; the cops tear themselves apart because nobody, not even the mayor, will stand up for them. At least the Mob takes care of them.
In its attitudes, Cop Land isn't so very far apart from the recent 187, in which a black teacher played by Samuel L. Jackson turns vigilante against the scum in his inner-city classroom because the "authorities" are too cravenly liberal to help. Both films pay lip service to the "tragedy" of taking the law into your own hands, but you can sense what's really going on. 187 plays into the audience's reactionary feelings of retribution. Cop Land, even though it posits Ray and the others as dirtbags, lets us know it's the liberal lawmakers who dirtied them. New York City is displayed as a haven for the wrong element, and we're left with little doubt as to who that element might be.
If Mangold were really serious about this stuff, he might have explored the psychology of beleaguered cops who are made to feel like they are the perpetrators in their own busts. He could have dug deeply into the way police work can gnarl a cop's sympathies and prompt his own worst impulses. Mangold never ventures beyond the obvious. We're set up with righteous anger against the liberal establishment and then fobbed off with goombah melodramatics. The film should be called Cop Out.
Directed by James Mangold. With Sylvester Stallone, Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Annabella Sciorra and Ray Liotta.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.