ALPHABET MOVIE CLUB: Cop Land
WEEK 3- "C"
Nominees: Cool Hand Luke, Carlito's Way, The Changeling, Cape Fear (1962), Cop Land, Cop and a Half
Winner: Cop Land (director's cut DVD)
Background: Cop Land, from 1997 was the second film and first major studio picture directed by then-upcoming filmmaker James Mangold, following up his independent Sundance and Cannes festival hit Heavy from two years earlier. You will likely recognize his later work that includes Girl, Interrupted, Kate and Leopold, Identity, Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma, and Knight and Day.
Cop Land takes place in a fictional New Jersey town by the name of Garrison. Set up and enforced as a bedroom community across the George Washington Bridge away from the city violence, the population of under 2,000 is predominantly filled with proud and entitled NYPD cops. Watching over the small community as a glorified watch dog is Sheriff Freddy Heflin (a very un-Rocky-like Sylvester Stallone). Heflin lost his hearing in one ear and his chance to join New York's Finest during a town hero rescue as a teen. He tags along with the NYPD guys in town, including Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, Peter Berg, John Spencer, Arthur Nascarella, and Robert Patrick), who all my not be on the up-and-up, as their lovable loser and mascot.
To those hardcore cops, Freddy and his team (Toby Emmerich and Janeane Garofalo) are lesser members of law enforcement. When a golden boy hero cop of Garrison (Michael Rapaport) gets tangled in an accidental killing, his buddies (led by Keitel) fake his death and disappearance in order to dust his wrong-doings under the rug. You can tell this isn't the first time these boys have done such a thing. The strange and convenient circumstances draw the interest and ire of Internal Affairs investigator (Robert De Niro) looking for rightful justice on his side of the river. He attempts to call on and challenge Freddy as a outside influence to get to the bottom of the multiple alleged crooked dealings going in in Garrison.
Reaction: 4 STARS-- Cop Land, ever since its initial release 15 years ago, has always been a respected favorite of mine. It's a shame that it ended up as a box office disappointment compared to the expectations of bringing together such a top-line cast. I think the film has gotten better with age. It's refreshing to see an involving cop mystery without the computers, cell phones, and media of this century. Writer and director James Mangold saw his script and movie as an urban western and I completely agree with that self-assessment.
You can easily fit these actors and characters into the archetypes of classics like Shane and High Noon. Cop Land completely has a western's tone and style coupled with modern grit of crooked cops and hard-asses pouring snake oil and slithering through clouds of cigarette smoke. The ending shootout simulating Freddy's deafness is one of the smoothest action sequences ever done. It's no wonder Mangold went on to make the best western of this generation with his 3:10 to Yuma remake ten years later. Even though Cop Land didn't deliver on the initial hype, it's hard to find a flawed performance despite the cloud of disappointment that people put over this movie. Yes, it's far from the best cop movie of its year (that goes to L.A. Confidential) or even its era (that would be Heat), but everyone asserts themselves extremely well. Keitel and Patrick make for excellent "black hats" with badges, while Ray Liotta does a nice job in the middle of both sides. Cop Land is vintage tough-guy-with-a-smile-and-a-curse-word-or-two Robert De Niro before Analyze This and Meet the Parents soiled his reputation for the next decade and a half.
The absolute top reason to respect and enjoy this movie is the outstanding nuanced performance from Sylvester Stallone. He took this part as a chance to play against his action hero persona and act with some of his 1970's peers (De Niro and Keitel). Much was made about him putting on forty pounds of real flab to transform in Freddy, but it's his acting in this film that is the true transformation. Dropping his flair and charisma, raising his voice up from his usual baritone range, and slouching into his character's pathetic frame, you forget in the first five minutes that you're watching John Rambo or Rocky Balboa. This is easily one of the best performances of his career. Cop Land may not crackle as a thriller, but it's pulse still reaches the necessary boil to impress.
LESSON #1: THE BOUNDARIES OF LAW AND ORDER-- Cop Land teems with different levels of law enforcement and the boundaries of their respective reach, control, and motivations is paramount to this film and everyone's characterization. In Garrison, the NYPD residents who make their home there carry themselves as untouchable. Freddy's sheriff emulates and clings to a little bit of their aura and lets a lot of wrong slide as a proverbial puppet and pushover. De Niro's I.A. officer seeks to find justice across a river out of jurisdiction. Everything is always a little askew, but in the end, no one is above the law.
LESSON #2: LIVING UP THE POTENTIAL OF STATURE, STATUS, AND LABELS-- To go along with Lesson #1, each of these characters have a certain stature, status, and label to go along with their badge, title, or rank. The various shield wearers in Cop Land are leaders, followers, heroes, frauds, lovers, fighters, killers, criminals, and saviors. Our central character of Sheriff Heflin has the biggest journey to make in living up to the potential of what his badge stands for and what his capability truly is.
LESSON #3: IT'S NEVER TOO LATE TO DO THE RIGHT THING-- The journey for Freddy, from Lesson #1 of learning the real boundaries of law and order to Lesson #2 of living up to his potential, comes down to finally doing the right thing. He sorrowfully knows that this effort may be too late, but he reconciles with himself that it's better late than never to finally take a stand.