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Cop Land (1997)

March 10th, 2008 · 10 Comments

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Synopsis
In the town of “Garrison,” New Jersey across the river from New York City, Sheriff Freddy Heflin (Sylvester Stallone) unlocks a parking meter to steal quarters so he can play pinball. Heflin – a “wannabe” whose deaf ear prevented him from joining the NYPD – enforces the law in a town consisting mainly of cops and their families. While Heflin smashes his patrol car dodging a deer, up on the George Washington Bridge, off-duty officer “Superboy” Babitch (Michael Rapaport) shoots two unarmed dope fiends.

Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel) – who built Garrison as a haven for fellow cops – fears what his nephew might reveal if interrogated about corruption in the town. While no one is looking, he claims Superboy jumped off the bridge. When a sheriff’s deputy (Janeane Garafalo) stops Donlan for speeding, Heflin spots Superboy alive in the back seat. Internal Affairs detective Moe Tilden (Robert DeNiro) arrives in Garrison and asks Heflin to help him, but the sheriff refuses to step out of line.

A drug addled narc named Figgsy (Ray Liotta) is the only cop who shows Heflin any respect. In addition to being condescended to, Heflin endures watching the woman (Annabella Sciorra) he went deaf saving from drowning suffer through a bad marriage to one of the cops (Peter Berg) in Donlan’s inner circle. When Superboy flees his uncle’s protection and becomes hunted, Heflin sets out to find him and make a stand against Donlan’s crew.

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Production history
James Mangold had grown up in the Hudson River Valley town of Washingtonville, alongside Italian and Irish cops or firemen who were part of the “white flight” from New York City as it became more racially diverse in the 1970s. They sought to create their own suburbia by setting up homesteads in the outlying areas of the state. Trying to tell that story in a feature film, Mangold was reminded of the characters and metaphors of movie westerns. He wanted to fuse them with the energy of a ‘70s cop film like Serpico.

While directing his independently financed debut film Heavy, Mangold sold his script for Cop Land to Miramax Films in 1994. The studio had rocketed to meteoric prestige with Pulp Fiction, and everyone from Tom Hanks to Tom Cruise was interested in the project. Mangold and producer Cathy Konrad wanted John Travolta to play Freddy Heflin. The star loved the script, but was being pressured by studio chairman Harvey Weinstein to work for scale wages. When Weinstein refused to meet his fee, Travolta passed.

One star willing to take a pay cut was Sylvester Stallone. He jumped at the opportunity to reshape his career in an ensemble that added Robert DeNiro, Harvey Keitel and Ray Liotta. But when the film went before a test audience in Long Island, the crowd had other ideas. Stallone noted, “My fans want me to pick up a gun and shoot the bad guy. They don’t understand dialogue. It’s the World Wrestling Federation crowd evaluating this movie.” With a highest possible score of 100, Cop Land tested in the low 40s.

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Weinstein felt the film needed a rousing conclusion, with the bad guys clearly being punished. Mangold “tacked” on an ending outside Police Plaza in Manhattan to that effect, but what had started as a film with a low budget sensibility grew to a $29 million tentpole event. Released August 1997, Cop Land drew respectable critical notices and decent box office (grossing $45 million in the U.S.) but failed to live up to Miramax’s expectations for another Pulp Fiction.

Opinion
While some feel the film suffers in comparison to the classics whose iconography it taps into (notably GoodFellas), taken completely on its own merits, Cop Land is one of the most rewarding pieces of pulp fiction to emerge on movie screens in the 1990s. Instead of trying to titillate the audience, Mangold strives instead for social realism, exploring the corruption eating away at a community, and a disheveled sheriff searching for the morality to stand up to it.

One of the film’s many strengths is its ability to introduce over a dozen characters in the span of 104 minutes and give them all something interesting to do. The cast (including Robert Patrick, John Spencer and Edie Falco as New York’s finest) is exceptional. In the center is Stallone, who – with the exception of Rocky – has never played a more empathetic hero than he does here. With cinematography by Eric Edwards and an epic musical score by Howard Shore, Mangold rose to the level of his immense cast.

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Neil Dorsett at DVD Verdict says, “Movies this large are rarely this good. And while one might sour-grape and say that Mangold had a lot of insurance with this cast, speculating that the movie might not be memorable without these talented people – it is not without them. The movie would probably have been good anyway, but the additional strength lent by this cast puts it over into a realm of movies that can be enjoyed over and over again.”

Cop Land was supposed to do for Sylvester Stallone what Pulp Fiction did for John Travolta. Alas, the movie was (rightly) ignored by audiences and shrugged off by critics, thanks to an almost complete lack of anything so much as resembling a compelling story,” says Christopher Null at Filmcritic.com.

Brian Webster at Apollo Movie Guide writes, “Cop Land is not pleasant. It gives the impression that every New York City police officer is crooked, and just about everyone else is either helpless or willing to go along with it. Whether or not this image is accurate, Cop Land is compelling, and its characters ring true. Keitel is at his scummy best. Robert De Niro is solid as an internal affairs investigator. But Stallone’s honest and human portrayal of a decent man who’s let too much go by makes this film work.”

View the 8/7/97 episode of The Charlie Rose Show featuring James Mangold, Sylvester Stallone and Ray Liotta talking with Rose about Cop Land for the hour.

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Crooked officer · Interrogation · Midlife crisis · No opening credits · Shootout · Small town

10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 sir jorge // Mar 10, 2008 at 7:01 pm

    this is by far Stallone’s best film.

  • 2 Paul // Mar 10, 2008 at 8:53 pm

    With such a great cast you’re always wondering who is stealing scenes from who. I think DeNiro’s performance is uninspired – he can do a lot better. Stallone, Liotta and Patrick all give their best making this a career highlight for each of them.

    I love the shot of Ray Liotta with the cigarette and gun. It was funny at the time, but it’s probably a shot the film could do without. It kind of draws attention to itself and that’s not a compliment for the film’s most memorable shot. I like it, but it doesn’t match the rest of the film.

  • 3 christian // Mar 11, 2008 at 12:31 pm

    I thought Stallone was terrific in COPLAND and wish he could get more understated roles like this.

  • 4 soundtrackgeek // Mar 11, 2008 at 12:38 pm

    It’s a shame this movie didn’t become more popular than it was. It’s a great movie, and the whole cast did a great job, Stallone was superb, but I too think that his role on Rocky supersedes this, maybe even Rocky Balboa.

  • 5 Pat Evans // Mar 12, 2008 at 1:53 am

    I agree with those who think this was Stallone’s moment of glory since I have never been a Rocky or Rambo fan — and some of his other efforts have been nothing short of cringe-making; maybe he is likeable, but for my money he is no actor.

    Incidentally per your recent effusive review I watched “The Game” again and have written about it today (quoting your influence); unfortunately I didn’t like it this time around either. But as the cliche would have it, “That’s what makes horseracing”.

  • 6 AR // Mar 12, 2008 at 9:47 am

    I saw this movie when it hit cable in the mid-90’s and I remember thinking it was better than I thought it’d be. Other than Rocky, Stallone has never been my cup of tea, but I agree with everyone that he’s quite good in this.

  • 7 Mrs. Thuro's Mom // Mar 12, 2008 at 8:35 pm

    This film is just one more reason why I am a James Mangold fan. I was fortunate enough to see this in the theater. I was blown away by the performances of Stallone and Liotta who basically play “the losers” of the film. They were great.

  • 8 Joe Valdez // Mar 12, 2008 at 11:23 pm

    Jorge: While I’d still have to go with Rocky as Stallone’s best film, you could probably argue he was playing some variation of himself as the Italian Stallion. Cop Land is a complete immersion in this character Mangold wrote, and it’s in many ways, a much greater performance.

    Paul: I think you pointed out a flaw in the picture, which is that both DeNiro and Keitel’s parts are underwritten. I can sense Mangold was excited about Stallone’s part, Liotta’s part and also Super Boy, but the two heavyweights of the ’70s sort of drift right through this. Thanks for commenting.

    Christian: If you watch the Charlie Rose interview, Stallone is so likable, I don’t get why he hasn’t pursued better roles or wanted work with talented filmmakers more than he has throughout his career.

    Soundtrackgeek: Welcome and thanks for visiting. I’d be curious to read your take on this film’s score on your site. The music is one of the qualities about Cop Land that really stands out for me. Howard Shore has the innate ability to connect you emotionally to a film through his musical scoring.

    Patricia: I’m honored you would not only give me a nod on your site, but actually be motivated to make a rental based on something that I wrote. The Game might not have been the movie I would have gambled four euros on, as the contrivances are difficult for many people to accept.

    Stallone’s moment of glory would have to be Rocky. Not only did he write the screenplay, but refused to relinquish the leading role, it won Best Picture and made him a star. How do you beat that?

    AR: Thanks for commenting. Moving forward, I’m curious to read your take on the more contemporary movies I’ll be writing about.

    Mrs. Thuro’s Mom: It seems that almost each time James Mangold makes a new film, more than one critic comes out and pans it. I find it amazing that in addition to Cop Land, he directed Girl Interrupted, Identity, Walk the Line and 3:10 To Yuma. Not many directors have a body of work like that. Just look at the actors who’ve gone to work for him. Thanks for your comment!

  • 9 John // Sep 28, 2008 at 1:10 am

    Stallone is excellent in this, he has in the past made attempts with dramatic films, some which were quite good. Worth noting is films like Lords of Flatbush, F.I.S.T and Nighthawks among others. Stallone can act on par with guys like De Niro or Brando when given the chance.

  • 10 Sheen // Dec 21, 2012 at 9:03 am

    It was nice movie and stallone was excellent and did his exceptionally well with decency and dignity

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