"Cop Land" is a film about weight. The weight of defeat, of broken dreams,
of corruption, conscience and culpability. As Sheriff Freddy Heflin,
Sylvester Stallone trudges through life. A heroic act as a young man cost
him his hearing in one ear. The partial hearing loss cost him his dream
of becoming a New York City Police officer. And the loss of his dream
cost him everything. So Freddy trudges through life, 40 pounds overweight,
with a sad smile, a lazy gait and a don't make waves attitude. Heflin is
Sheriff of Garrison, New Jersey, a small town just across the river from
NYC. Garrison's population is comprised largely of New York cops who have
made the town their refuge, an oasis from the madness of the big city.
They treat Heflin with benign condescension, as nothing more than a slow-
witted figurehead. And Heflin accepts the role; if he can't be a "real"
cop, at least he can hang out with them.
So life goes on, with Heflin deferring to the lawbreaking and casual
bullying of his "superiors", until an incident in NYC changes it all.
Late one night, Murray Babitch (Michael Rappaport) is side-swiped on the
George Washington bridge by a pair of joy-riders. When he pursues them,
one of the men leans out the window and taunts Babitch while aiming
something at him. Babitch panics and fires on them, resulting in a car
wreck and two dead young men. Within minutes, the bridge is swarming with
people, and the only object found near the men's bodies is "The Club".
Police cronies plant a gun, but an alert paramedic notices the scam and
raises loud objections. Amidst the chaos, Babitch's uncle, Senior officer
Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel) spirits his nephew away, claiming that the
young cop committed suicide by jumping from the bridge.
Babitch is given a lavish police funeral, while Uncle Ray keeps the youth
tucked away in his Garrison home, so convinced of the sanctity of the
town that he holds a barbecue at the house, with the youth wandering
about freely drinking and socializing. Sheriff Heflin knows about the
brazen farce. Internal Affairs investigator Moe Tilden (Robert De Niro)
suspects. But the cops in Garrison have many powerful friends.
The investigation of the incident allows "Cop Land" to spin off into a
wide variety of sub-plots and character studies. The film meanders, the
multiple stories become confusing, and the inevitable show-down is overly
simplistic and more than a bit illogical, but Cop Land works anyway,
because of writer/director James Mangold's steady, assured pacing,
excellent cinematography and the strong performances of the powerhouse
Stallone sheds his Nautilus image for the film, reminding us that he
began his career as an actor, not an icon. His Sheriff Heflin is a
fascinating character, an utterly defeated man with a spark of his former
self still burning somewhere inside. Stallone's nuanced performance is
good, hopefully a harbinger of a new direction for his career. Keitel is
excellent as the leader of the Garrison cops, a viper of a man whose
smile is nearly as threatening as his scowl. De Niro does his usual fine
work, as do Robert Patrick, Cathy Moriarty, Annabella Sciorra and Peter
Berg in supporting roles. The wonderful Janeane Garofalo, who seems
incapable of making a bad career move, has a nice turn in a cameo as one
of Sheriff Heflin's deputies.
The actor who makes the biggest splash in "Cop Land", however, is Ray
Liotta. After a long series of simplistic bad guy roles, Liotta finally
has a part with some meat to it, and he is outstanding. His Officer Gary
Figgis was once a member of the Garrison cop's inner circle, but became
estranged from the group following the murder of his partner, who had
planned to testify against the officers. Figgis is a bloated mess of a
man, a cokehead drowning in anger and self-pity, but his conscience has
survived and he becomes an uneasy ally of Sheriff Heflin.
Beyond the dynamic acting, "Cop Land" offers several impressive set
pieces. One of the best involves a violent confrontation, viewed through
Stallone's hearing-impaired character. The combination of near-silence
and high-voltage action is disconcerting and mesmerizing, adding a
surreal element to the film at just the right moment.
The structural and logical flaws of "Cop Land" are easy to forgive, given
the strong acting, pacing and framing of the film. Writer/director
Mangold has constructed a worthy tale of despair and redemption that
overflows with memorable images. "Cop Land" isn't a great film, but it is
a very good one.
Copyright © 1997 Edward Johnson-Ott