Cop Land (1997)

D: James Mangold
S: Sylvester Stallone, Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro

Cop Land is a story about police corruption set in a town entirely populated by police. It concerns the awakening of slow-witted New Jersey Sheriff Sylvester Stallone to the hypocrisy around him and his decision to do something about it. Pitted against him are local heavies Harvey Keitel and Robert Patrick, who are involved in a cover-up involving young white trash cop Michael Rappaport and the murder of two black youths on the George Washington Bridge. Egging him on are cocaine-addicted burn out Ray Liotta and manipulative Internal Affairs cop Robert De Niro. Watching from the wings is old flame dream girl Annabella Sciorra, who is married to an unsuitable partner even though Stallone saved her life when she was a girl, and Keitel's beaten wife Cathy Moriarty who leaves garbage bags outside Sciorra's house as part of an extra-marital vendetta. It climaxes in a shoot-out which builds up like something from High Noon or Rio Bravo though its execution is rather more downbeat and concludes with the stern moral warning that no one is above the law, a legend used extensively in the film's advertising.

This film might have worked if it were made twenty years ago. At that time, Sylvester Stallone was appearing in films like The Lords of Flatbush, Rocky, FIST and Paradise Alley. People were still uncertain if his laid-back, slack-jawed on-screen ambulations masked a true performer whose greatest work was yet to come. At that time Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro were edgy young actors also, both of whom were lucky enough to have linked up with the Scorsese kid and made a couple of good movies. Though all three men would have been too young for the parts, they might well have worked together in a low-key mould typical of the time. It was also the tail end of the New Hollywood era. Morally ambiguous thrillers about official corruption were rife, and a whole new visual style was being evolved in American cinema to deal with it. In this atmosphere, a muddled script with strong potential like Cop Land's would have been assumed to be part of the film's artistic licence in challenging audience and critical expectation.

It might even have worked if it were made twenty years later. At that time Sylvester Stallone would have aged and matured as an actor (don't laugh. Jerry Lewis was once Jim Carrey, Jack Lemmon was once Tom Hanks, Kirk Douglas was once Arnold Schwarzenegger). He would have developed the instincts of an older man, and gained weight with the passing of time instead of a runaway eating binge, and would move, talk and act like the character he's playing. He might also have developed a dramatic actor's sense of rhythm and timing, which would at least allow him to play alongside De Niro and Keitel, who have those things now. As seasoned character actors, these latter two would have been even more interesting in their parts. One can picture Keitel as an elder statesman of police corruption, presiding over the little town like Brando in The Godfather, only on a smaller, more sinister scale.

But all of this is speculation. At this time, in this place; Cop Land doesn't work. The reason is Sylvester Stallone. Now, pointing the finger at Stallone is not taking a cheap shot or choosing the path of least resistance. Writer/director James Mangold is complicit in making his character the focus of the film, often allowing the sub characters and sub-plots to go astray in favour of allowing him the freedom to develop his characterisation, of which he never avails. He is simply the weakest link in the chain, and the most crucial. Therefore the film rests on Stallone's performance, and he simply can't carry it.

I have never said a word against Sylvester Stallone's acting. He does what he does very well. It's not easy to be an action star. It takes a particular brand of screen presence and hard-edged heroics which not everyone can get away with, and Stallone is one of the best in the business. You don't hand a Lawgiver to Harvey Keitel and send him out into Mega City One (granted Robert Rodriguez handed him a shotgun and a crucifix and pitted him against Mexican vampires in From Dusk Till Dawn, but it had unfortunate effects on the film's already skewed tone). Robert De Niro made a successful crossover into comedy with Midnight Run, but went totally overboard in We're No Angels.

Stallone has spent so long making action films that he has missed out on his chance to develop the necessary skills to tackle dramatic material at this point in his life. He made Cop Land with the intention of being taken more seriously as an actor, and we'll grant him that. No one will deny a man the right to grow and change. But next to a supporting cast of this calibre, all of whom are working in their native genre, he is an amateur. And it is never advisable to let an amateur anchor a professional production (The Godfather Part III leaps to mind).

He is trying to pick up where he left off in the early eighties. The soulful, hangdog look and droopy-eyed puppydog Italian-American brown eyes are back. The meek, uncertain shambling of the younger actor is also there, underneath the sick staggering of the middle aged actor trying to fit himself into a role he is not physically suited for (presumably inspired by co-star De Niro's excesses in Raging Bull and The Untouchables). But it's strictly an acting exercise for him rather than a fully realised performance. He also seems to be on the verge of barfing all the way through and looks queasy more often than he looks moody and introspective. This hurts the film very badly, and the excessive focus on him means that a lot of screen time which could be spent sorting out the various strands of plot and character is wasted on lingering shots of Stallone struggling to come to terms with what he's trying to do as an actor in each scene.

The result is that a film which begins interestingly enough and which occasionally seems to be quite good never quite comes together. It finishes up little more than an assemblage of scenes and moments linked by a very personal experience for Sylvester Stallone which may or may not interest the general public.

There are some bits which stand out for each of the supporting cast. Ray Liotta has fun doing a curious variant on Doc Holiday, though he goes over the top as all actors do given such a role. Robert Patrick is a real surprise, nicely fleshing out an aimless henchman into a menacing character. Though Keitel and De Niro share only one brief scene, they are totally at home with what they are doing. Granted, neither character is properly developed and so the actors get precious little chance to stretch themselves, but they fit into the fabric well enough. Sciorra and Moriarty face the challenge of the Hollywood female actor as best they can, having been given roles which don't properly motivate the action and simply fill in the background, but both are memorable in the roles. A plethora of other familiar faces turn up in various smaller roles, and everyone seems to be tuned in.

But it all turns on Stallone, and posits him as the agency for moral retribution. As the layers of corruption are revealed to him, he awakens from his slumber to bring justice and order to the community. The film occasionally generates menace and tension, but there is no prevailing sense of the moral order with which Stallone can interact, even as a sleepwalking semi-imbecile (which is how he is initially portrayed, in what one would presume is a self-parodic gesture). The community is just a tad too star-studded and too far removed from everyday experience to generate a convincing stage upon which the drama would unfold. His motivations are too vague and his sense of place too ill-defined to allow the character to emerge with righteous indignation. The flashbacks which explain his partial deafness and sense of grievance about Sciorra's desertion are clumsily worked in and seem fairly pointless in the long run.

Though he saves the day, he seems to do so for no reason other than it ought to happen. He never seems to engage with the world and consciously assert positive social action. In many ways his journey resembles that of Russell Crowe's character in L.A. Confidential, but this film lack's the latter's focus and ensemble acting. Even when he finally comes to life at the climax and chooses the path of righteousness, he stumbles as if in a daze, never convincing us that he understands and embraces the concept of justice he nominally upholds. It becomes a tapestry of casual brutality, revenge and redemption, with Liotta chipping in like Victor Mature in My Darling Clementine. This makes the film morally unsatisfying, and makes the violence seem exploitative rather than justified. The evil is not so much punished as accidentally trodden on, and the finale with Stallone staring happily across the river, now satisfied with his lot in life is merely convenient rather than deserved.

All in all Cop Land is an interesting film to watch, simply because it wants to be so many things it simply isn't. It is not pretentious, but neither is it effective. Stallone does his best, but he simply does not have the level of skill required to pull it off. It is, eventually, a waste of terrific potential, but there are enough pleasing elements to allow you to enjoy it if your expectations are not terribly high. In time, perhaps, it will be an important watershed in Stallone's career, but only as a restarting point, not a significant development. Then again, it may not, and he may return to where he has always done best. Perhaps that would be just as well.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.