Screenplay : James Mangold
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1997
Stars : Slyvester Stallone (Freddy Heflin), Harvey Keitel (Ray Donlan), Robert De Niro (Mo Tilden), Ray Liotta (Gary Figgis), Michael Rappaport (Murray Babitch)
I've heard too many people describing James Mangold's "Cop Land" as a movie about one good sheriff taking on a precinct of corrupt cops. Yes, that is part of the story, but it's not what the film is about. The good cop/bad cop is just the framework the movie uses to tell a tale of disillusionment, loss, and one man's harsh realization that what he looked up to all his life was wrong.
The hero of "Cop Land" is Freddy Heflin, played by Sylvester Stallone. By now, everyone knows that Stallone took a huge cut in pay and followed the "Raging Bull" School of Acting by putting on 40 pounds to play the part. Why? He did it because he's been bashed one too many times for the bad movies he's been associated with in the last ten years: "Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot," "Judge Dredd," and "Assassins," just to name few. Here, Stallone wants to shed the banal superstar image he's dug himself into, and prove that he still has the potency to make a character indelible, in the same way he cemented Rocky Balboa into the common American identity.
Although Freddy Heflin is no Rocky, Stallone does an admirable job of bringing him across as a real person we can sympathize with. Unlike Rambo or even Rocky in the later sequels, Freddy is a man of flesh and blood, someone who can be easily hurt both physically and emotionally. Amid all the corruption and violence, he is the film's emotional center -- a decent man, whose very decency often makes him seem weak and ineffective.
The truth is, Freddy always wanted to be cop. Not a policeman or a sheriff, but a New York City cop. When he was a teenager, he saved a girl from drowning, and in the process lost the hearing in one ear, and along with it, his chances of fulfilling his dream. Twenty years later, he's the sheriff of Garrison, New Jersey, a town where veteran New York cops have moved to get away from the rampant crime of the big city.
But behind its leafy, happy, suburban veneer, Garrison is a haven for corrupt cops, led by Ray Dolan (Harvey Keitel). He and his group are the ones really running the show. Freddy wears the badge, but it holds no weight with these hardened street cops.
Things start getting ruffled when an internal police investigator named Mo Tilden (Robert De Niro) comes poking around while investigating the supposed suicide of a cop, Murray Babitch (Michael Rappaport), who accidentally shot some black teenagers on a joyride. Fearing a racial incident, Babitch faked his feath, and Donlan, who is uncle, hid him in Garrison until they could create a new identity.
Tilden suspects the truth about Garrison, but he can't convince Freddy. Freddy, who has spent his entire life looking up to these men, simply cannot accept that they are dirty. Even when one of Dolan's right hand men (Ray Liotta) gets a clash of conscience, and tells Freddy up front that Garrison is built on the foundation of Mafia money, Freddy refuses to admit it.
In this way, "Cop Land" is not so much about the good sheriff taking on the bad guys, but the good sheriff slowly coming to the realization that his heroes are actually criminals. It's a painful realization for him, because it amounts to his dreams being shattered for a second time. The first time kept him from being one of them, the second time made him realize that he never should have wanted to be one of them.
©1997 James Kendrick