You may be law enforcement, but you're not a cop.
"Cop Land" has been billed as yet another Sylvester Stallone 'comeback' picture, following in the footsteps of his previous abortive attempts, such as "Cliffhanger" and "Daylight". However, this time around, the claims may actually be true. Under the careful direction of James Mangold, who directed 1996's "Heavy" (an independent film about an overweight cook finding atonement working in a small-town diner), Stallone portrays Freddy Heflin, the overweight Sheriff who finds atonement working in a small-town Sheriff's department.
My jurisdiction ends at the George Washington Bridge. The problem is that half the cops I watch live beyond my jurisdiction.
Freddy is the law enforcement in the New Jersey town of Garrison, connected to the bright lights of New York City via the George Washington Bridge. Freddy often sits on the shore of the river, looking at the faraway city, wishing desperately to be a New York City cop, but unable to because of his deafness in one ear. Even though he is the Sheriff, he is invisible to the corrupt New York City cops that make Garrison their home. Over the years, Freddy has grown to respect the cops and learned to look the other way at the first sign of wrongdoing, whether it be speeding or smuggling. As a result, he is resigned to an isolated existence, forever relegated to the sidelines as a figurehead cop.
Don't you remember? Ray Donlan practically gave you this job. We made your sorry ass.
However, all this changes when Officer Murray 'Superboy' Babitch (Michael Rapaport) shoots two unarmed black youths on the George Washington Bridge. After a botched attempt to plant evidence at the scene to make it seem as though the youths were armed, the league of corrupt cops, lead by Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel, in a role mirroring his performance in "Bad Lieutenant"), help Babitch fake a suicide. However, the head of Internal Affairs, Moe Tilden (Robert DeNiro on a bad 70s hair day) is not convinced of the reported suicide and begins to investigate the cops living in Garrison. Unfortunately, because they reside outside his jurisdiction, he attempts to elicit the help of Freddy. But Freddy, bound by his code of silence to Ray Donlan, provides Tilden with no assistance, keeping his mouth shut about the illegal activities that he has personally witnessed. However, when Freddy comes across Babitch one night, in a paranoid frenzy about Donlan and his cronies wanting to kill him, Freddy is faced with a choice between his loyalties to the cops and the need for justice.
You're a sheriff in a cop land.
The meaty plot about misplaced and displaced allegiances and the vicious circle of corruption is rife with subplots and supporting characters, many of which are sorely undeveloped, such as the relationship between Freddy and Liz Randone (Annabella Sciorra), a girl he saved from drowning (which resulted in his deafness) and who is now married to one of the corrupt cops. Only the parallel subplot of Officer Garry Figgis (Ray Liotta), a cocaine-addicted cop who is trying to go straight (to the chagrin of Donlan), is given enough of an exploration to actually provide momentum to the story, and contribute to the dramatic final confrontation that literally envelops the audience into the state of sensory deprivation that Freddy experiences.
The cast of dozens features a wide range of actors, from the established (De Niro, Keitel), to the mediocre (Robert Patrick), to the green (Janeane Garofalo). However, it is Stallone that shines, even though he is cast against type. Freddy Heflin radiates frailty and quiet resignment, and Stallone, in a sympathetic low-key performance helps to bring out these aspects of the character. Ray Liotta also shows excellent acting chops in his supporting role, displaying an intensity that easily redeems him for some of his other more recent and unmemorable efforts. Finally, De Niro and Keitel are their usual over-the-top selves in their respective roles.
"Cop Land" was refreshing to see in a cinematic wasteland populated by overly-long car chases, wisecracking sidekicks, and thunderous explosions. Mangold, who also wrote the screenplay, has crafted an emotionally reverberant take on the typical police and mob genres that is not only believable, but also unforgettable.