Directed by James Mangold
In 1985, while writing a review of Sylvester Stallone's grotesque rabble-rouser Rocky IV, I went back and watched the original Rocky to see if--to borrow the controlling metaphor of Ingmar Bergman's The Serpent's Egg--"through the thin membranes you [could] clearly discern the already perfect reptile." In other words, was the man's egotism always this monstrous? Maybe not. In Rocky, which is basically a comedy, Stallone is treated as a lumbering sad sack. Most striking is the camera placement. The director, John Avildsen, keeps Stallone small in the frame, as dwarfed by his desolate environment as Chaplin's Little Tramp. After Sly became a superstar, he seized creative control of his films and moved the camera way up close, so that his heavy-lidded nobility and his musculature loomed large. (In interviews, he said that his father remarked on the puniness of his Rocky physique, a dig that clearly goaded Stallone into pumping himself up, in all senses.) Stallone has certainly had his blockbusters over the years, but he has also turned himself into a Goliath of camp.
In Cop Land, Stallone plays Freddy Heflin, the loser sheriff of Garrison, N.J., just across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan. I use the word "loser" so casually because the film virtually brands it on his forehead. He is discovered in a bar, playing a desultory game of pinball beside half a dozen empty beer bottles. Running short of quarters, the soft, flabby Freddy staggers outside, unlocks a parking meter, and spills the coins all over the sidewalk. Driving home loaded, he glances longingly across the Hudson at the big city where he once dreamed of being a cop, and then, swerving to avoid a deer, plunges off the road into a tree, totaling his car and putting a huge gash on the bridge of his nose. The hardened policemen who live in Garrison--a New York-cop enclave--treat him like a pet. He's there to give speeding tickets. In his shabby house, he listens to the blue-collar wail of Bruce Springsteen. The man is Jersey through and through.
S tallone, whom a former associate of his once described to me as "the most frightened man in Hollywood," had to hold a press conference to announce that he was going to gain weight for the part of a not-so-super hero in a small movie. (From his vantage, I guess, Miramax makes small movies.) Where normally Stallone would over-project his potency, in Cop Land he telegraphs his impotence. It isn't just the paunch. It's the bleary, hangdog demeanor; the watery eyes; the shambling gait; the passiveness that borders on the stereotypically feminine. He's like a white Stepin Fetchit. And yet, as obvious as this performance is, it's more deeply felt than anything Stallone has done since Rocky--and is close, I suspect, to how the actor really sees himself. He's never more winning than when he projects loserdom.
Cop Land shares its leading man's slow-wittedness, but also his likability. It tries hard. It's formulaic, but it sticks to a classic Western formula instead of a cartoonish blockbuster one. Think High Noon by way of Scorsese, with a touch of Peyton Place. (I could also cite Carl Franklin's One False Move and Tony Richardson's The Border--but the list of influences would run as long as this review.) The writer-director, James Mangold (Heavy), labors mightily to establish a sense of place--he never stops setting the scene. At the start, the camera glides over Manhattan into New Jersey while a narrator (Robert De Niro, who turns out to be an Internal Affairs cop named Mo Tilden) informs us that New York City policemen have always dreamed of living outside the metropolis itself, "where the shit couldn't touch 'em," and that Garrison was such a refuge--a city on a hill, with a large population of cops, no minorities, and almost no crime.
O f course, the hill the city sits on is a heap of corruption, a pile of lies as high as the Palisades. Everything emanates from Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel), a super-connected New York cop who presides over Garrison like the old-style movie boss-men of Akim Tamiroff or Edward G. Robinson. But Ray has a problem. While driving drunk back to Jersey, his nephew, a cop named Babitch (Michael Rapaport), gets sideswiped on the bridge by a couple of stoned rastas. Thinking they fired on him, he blows them away. (I thought they fired on him, too, but the point is murky--no gun is found in the car.) For some reason, Ray fears that his nephew will spill his guts to Internal Affairs, so he takes radical (and, quite frankly, moronic) measures to keep Babitch from seeing the inside of an interrogation room.
Mangold and his cinematographer, Eric Alan Edwards, can't get enough of Garrison's terraced cliffs above the Hudson, and they rarely lose sight of the imposing Manhattan skyline. It's a constant reminder to Freddy of the time when, as a teen-ager, he saved the town beauty (Annabella Sciorra) from drowning when her car went off the bridge, in the process mangling one ear and leaving himself unfit for the NYPD. We learn all this from flashbacks and from a strange oracle called Gary "Figgs" Figgis (Ray Liotta), who, when drunk, can't seem to stop himself from spewing exposition. ("You saved the town beauty from drowning and made yourself deaf in one ear so that you couldn't be a New York cop, and then she married some other guy--you have a right to be jealous!" Or words to that effect.)
I n the labyrinthine plot, everyone has something to hide. Ray's wife (Cathy Moriarty) is having an affair with another cop (Peter Berg), who's married to Freddy's old heartthrob (Sciorra). Assorted police goons--among them the dependable heavy Frank Vincent and the blue-eyed, blankly malevolent Robert Patrick, the lethal shape-shifter of Terminator 2: Judgment Day--let the sheriff know he'd better turn his deaf ear on Ray's chicanery. For most of Cop Land, we watch Stallone get bullied and stared down by everyone in the large cast, while we wait for him to awaken from his stupor and start blowing bad guys away--which you know he has to do or he would never have accepted the role. Of course, the formula dictates that all his allies must abandon him so he can march down the street, wielding a shotgun, bleeding but with the iron back in his spine, to prove to those city cops what he's really made of. "Everybody in this town," he says, "is gonna tell the truth."
Since the film moves in such a leisurely fashion, with lots of talk, there's plenty of time to be distracted by the over-familiar cast. Oh, there's Cathy Moriarty, married to Harvey Keitel--hmmm: Weren't they in Raging Bull together? No, that was Joe Pesci. Where's Joe Pesci? Will Moriarty have any scenes with De Niro, her Raging Bull co-star? Will Keitel have more scenes with De Niro? Have they acted together since Taxi Driver? Liotta, he and De Niro were both in GoodFellas--was Keitel in that? No, that was Pesci, but Lorraine Bracco, Keitel's ex, played Liotta's wife. Will Liotta have any scenes with De Niro? Wasn't Frank Vincent in Raging Bull? And GoodFellas? And Casino? Where's Joe Pesci?
All these Scorsese types are in there pitching, doing their damnedest to legitimize the movie and its wayward star. Under a curly black thatch, De Niro coasts along, giving an offhand but confidently weird performance. "I look at you, sheriff," he says, "and I see a man who's waiting for something to do." The over-deliberate diction lets you know that he knows the line is a cliché but that he thinks it's entertaining anyway. The character is playing with Freddy, and De Niro is playing with Stallone. "I could take you blindfolded, both hands tied behind my back," he seems to say, the heavyweight towering over the bantamweight. And Stallone, bless him, endures it like a man.