— Moe Tilden, Cop Land
For Stallone, 1997’s Cop Land is an event. It is here, after spending years on an action movie apology tour for The Comedies, that he chose to branch out. Well, maybe not really “branch out” as much as reactivate long dormant muscles for drama.
When people watch Rocky, I think they’re surprised by the fact that it’s actually a drama; Rocky Balboa is considered an action hero along side John Rambo and Marion Cobretti despite his very grounded origins. Stallone always had higher aspirations and Rocky is as much about that ambition as it is about boxing. The man wanted to be taken seriously despite growing up in a time and place where his voice made him a subject of ridicule. Though important thoughts might run through his mind, his diction, accent, and manner often made people assume he could barely string a coherent notion together.
In fact, this still holds true even today.
Before and after Rocky, Stallone played dramatic roles in films like The Lords of Flatbush, F.I.S.T and his directorial debut, Paradise Alley. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to call Nighthawks an action film despite a handful of shootouts. It’s not until Rocky III and First Blood that his image changed. At that point in the early 80s, he became all about giant pecs and body grease.
Despite the seduction of the Regan years with its attendant vices and bizarre matrimony, Stallone always saw himself more versatile and able than his fans, Hollywood, and the critics gave him credit for. In the late 90s, he felt comfortable enough with his status on all of those fronts to return to drama in this James Mangold directed film about police corruption and one actor’s desperation to be taken seriously.
Stallone plays Freddy Heflin, the sheriff of Garrison, New Jersey. It’s a cop town and Freddy grew up there with no greater desire than to become a boy in blue. Sadly, his dream was sunk when he saved Liz, the prom queen, from drowning when her car skidded off a nearby bridge. While he was praised as a hero for saving her, the incident caused him to lose hearing in his right ear; a physical condition that made him unfit for the NYPD.
During all of that lovely backstory, NYPD officer Ray Donlan arranged for various policemen in his precinct to get special privileges allowing them to live in Garrison while working in Manhattan. He also made a deal with the local bank to offer low-interest home loans to the men of the 37th Precinct. This is one of the more shadowy elements of the story as Garrison appears to be a cop town even before Donlan made it “Cop Land,” but the opening narration gives the impression that this status is only a recent development.
All of this set-up is important for what actually transpires in the film.
Leaving a bachelor party, Donlan’s nephew, Murray Babitch, shoots a couple of black kids on the G.W. Bridge. While Murray believed it to be a clean shoot, it turns out the kids brandished a steering lock at him at the exact same moment his front tire blew out. (In fact, the whole scene is shot as though the kids really are packing heat.) Fearing the dust-up will cause an investigation into Donlan’s other activities, he conspires with fellow officers from the 3-7 to stage Murray’s suicide.
Except, of course, Sheriff Freddy spies Murray in the back of Donlan’s new car. Oops.
This plot point is forgotten for awhile as we learn a little bit more about Garrison and its denizens. Turns out Liz, the girl Freddy saved, married another 3-7 cop named Joey Randone. Radone is steppin’ out on his old lady with Donlan’s misses, Rose. (If you’ll pardon the pulpy parlance.) Meanwhile, Freddy is pals with a disgraced cop named Gary Figgis who might be a cokehead. Freddy has two deputies, one is female and new to town. She gets a lashing from Donlan when she accidentally pulls him over for speeding.
After some more back and forth between the 3-7 cops, we learn that the local bank is controlled by the mob and Donlan struck a deal with them to create their little utopia. In order for Garrison to be Cop Land, the 37th Precinct became a safe-zone for the mafia to traffic narcotics. I don’t know about you, but I bet Jack McCoy would be really angry about something like this.
Murray eventually reveals himself to Freddy, which prompts the Sheriff to visit Internal Affairs Detective Moe Tilden down at One Police Plaza in the city. If you ever saw a trailer for the movie and the moment when Robert DeNiro shouts “AND YOU BLEW ITTTT!!!!”, it’s from this scene. Freddy’s reluctance to help Tilden earlier gave Donlan just enough room to get the investigation shut down. Having tried to talk Donlan into turning himself in, the sheriff decides to find Murray on his own and bring him to One PP for a chat with the Rat Squad.
Still with me on this?
After a hilariously bloody shootout, Freddy accomplishes his goals and Murray turns states evidence. Donlan and his pals aren’t so lucky. They end up dead and scattered around his house. Well, except for Radone. Donlan let him fall to his death earlier when he figured out he’d been given Rose the goods (again, if you’ll excuse the expression).
After an odd moment of voice-over and apparent audio from archive news footage, we see Freddy back in Garrison doing the job of the local Sheriff and still wishing he could be over in New York City.
Many people argue that Cop Land is a fine film, but I think it has some major story issues that prevent it from being one of the great Stallone pictures. You’ll notice in the summary that I introduced at least four characters who have no bearing on the main plot. In this respect, the film has something of a multiple personality disorder. It wants to be a serious, novelistic drama (no doubt because that was the sort of film Stallone wanted to be in), but it also wants to focus on the meaty corruption plot and Robert DeNiro’s hardnosed IAB character.
I know, I’m using a lot of “Law & Order” terms here.
Stallone actually disappears for great swathes of time until the final 40 minutes or so. In fact, the film has to work really, really hard to get him involved with the corruption plot. While he glimpses Murray in the car early on, it’s not until a visit from Tilden that Freddy starts to doubt Donlan’s ethics. That scene happens nearly half-way through the movie. Before that, Freddy is more concerned with the provincial domestic situations of the cop wives and whether or not his pal Figgis burned down his own home for the insurance money
(Turns out, yeah, he did.)
The film takes a stab at tying all of these subplots to the bigger issue of corruption in the 3-7 and Donlan’s relationship with the mob. Unfortunately, director James Mangold chose to do it in such a dry manner that it actually makes every story thread limp along. It also obscures the geography and makes one scene that happens in Manhattan feels as real as a high school version of Serpico.
But all of these things obscure a curious note that permeates the film: Stallone’s wish for acceptance. Freddy, like Rocky Balboa, has a physical impediment that prevents anyone from taking him seriously. He desperately wants to belong to the special brotherhood of the NYPD. At the same time, Stallone desperately wants to belong to the cadre of talent playing the cops. Though he has no writing credit on Cop Land, Stallone’s presence certainly had an impact on casting. I’ve already mentioned DeNiro’s turn as Tilden, but I’ve kept the rest of the castlist back until now.
Donlan is played by Harvey “Bad Lieutenant” Keitel. His goon squad includes John “Leo from ‘The West Wing'” Spencer and Robert “T-1000” Patrick. Murray is played by Michael Rapaport and Figgis is portrayed by Ray Liotta before he went off the deep-end.
The film also boasts Peter Berg, Kathy Moriarty, Annabella Sciorra, Noah Emmerich, Janeane Garofalo, Edie Falco and a cameo by Deborah Harry … all of whom are considered more serious actors than Stallone. Facing this gauntlet of people, Stallone dials himself way down to play up Freddy’s disappointment, sadness, and despair. He stares into scenes with wanting eyes. He craves respect from the heavy-weights like DeNiro and Keitel. He pretty much matches everyone else in the film on the performance scale, but, of course, one can never stop thinking that this is Stallone and his subdued character is somehow fraudulent. In several scenes, both Keitel and DeNiro dangle the carrot of acceptance over him. Stallone’s eyes moisten at the prospect of the legitimacy only the cast of Mean Streets could give him. Unfortunately, the situation made him too vulnerable. Could it be that the champ wants it too much? Has the body grease been replaced with flop-sweat?
Whether moviegoers perceived it or not, they recoiled in horror from a dramatic Stallone and the film withered on the cinematic vine. It never garnered an appreciation amongst the fanbase or the box office receipts to keep Stallone afloat into the coming decade. He later admitted that this was “the beginning of the end, for about eight years.” It’s with Cop Land that we enter the wildness period for Sylvester Stallone. Once one of the three princes of action, the man now found himself swirling the drain in productions like Driven, D-Tox (also known as Eye See You) and the Get Carter remake.
But all of those are for another day …
Director James Mangold would fair much better than his star. He would go on to direct well-received films like 3:10 to Yuma and recently assumed the reigns of the upcoming Wolverine sequel. He also directed Kate & Leopold.
Stallone by the Numbers:
Appearances by Frank: 0
Indecipherable Stallone yells: 1
Whimsical Stallone character names: 0