by Del Harvey
In a town full of cops, who’s to say what’s right and what’s wrong?
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The shuffling, dumpy, sleepy-eyed boy-man in the brown uniform looks familiar. But he’s very out of character. As a young boy in the small New Jersey town of Garrison, he was a local hero, diving into the river to save the homecoming queen, whose car went off the bridge. He grew up wanting to be a cop, but he was deaf in his left ear from that episode in the river, so the best he could do was to become a sheriff in Garrison, just across the river from New York City. This little town is home to a large number of New York’s finest, who made a place where they could live comfortably and their families could be safe. But there is one thing they can protect neither their families nor themselves from.
As Sheriff Freddy Heflin, Sylvester Stallone proves he is an actor, and not just an action hero. He weighs in with a performance that is superb and holds his own against some real powerhouse actors, including Robert DeNiro and Harvey Keitel. His new deputy is the acerbic Janeane Garofalo — a most unlikely pairing. Even though this is not your typical Stallone role, it works well and he fits the part. The usual loner is played as a simple local boy who grew up believing in the law and the men and women who enforce it. Down to earth, Sheriff Heflin takes the time to break up a scrap between a bunch of young kids, and goes out of his way to return a child’s plush toy. He is set against legendary and corrupt cop Ray Donlan (Keitel), the acknowledged leader of Garrison’s group of New York cops. On Donlan’s side are a rogue’s gallery of actors: Robert Patrick, Peter Berg, Michael Rapaport, John Spencer, and Arthur Nascarella. Somewhere in between is Ray Liotta as Figgsy, another cop who is tormented by the suspicion that Donlan killed his partner.
When Internal Affairs investigator Mo Tilden (DeNiro) comes to sleepy Garrison and causes Heflin to recognize what’s going on all around him, the sleepy-eyed sheriff is stirred to action. Heflin also overcomes his lethargic attitude towards the beauty queen (Anabella Sciorra) whose life he saved. He stands up to the bad boys in blue, and makes a difference, for the second time in his otherwise quiet life.
Written and directed by James Mangold (Kate & Leopold; Girl, Interrupted), Cop Land is an excellent drama and murder mystery with a unique perspective. It has the feel of a “little” film and plays out as a parable, which is only improved upon due to the reverse casting of Stallone. Mangold gets top performances from every one of his actors, who ooze the rough and gritty flavor of New York and New Jersey. A handful of them went on to regular or semi-regular roles on The Sopranos, including Edie Falco in a minor role. There is a scene when the awakened sentinel Heflin confronts the instigating Tilden, and for the most fleeting of moments you can sense a showdown between Rocky Balboa and Jake LaMotta. The older fighter has the experience and the moves, but the younger fighter shows respect. And that is what sets Stallone apart from the bulk of those other action heroes.
Cop Land is a great little film, entertaining and surprising. It showcases the talent of a very underrated actor, and it tells a strong story very well. Check out this quality film the next time you’re in the video store.
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly. He used to live in Chicago. He did, but he don’t anymore…
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