Perhaps best known as the movie featuring a paunchy instead of punchy Stallone, Cop Land is also a slowly captivating journey of self-realization and corruption. Helped along its sometimes overstuffed way by an incredible cast, the second feature from James Mangold is a testament to what young filmmakers can do given the chance to shoot their own scripts, both good and not so good.
Every so often in the just under two hour feature, there’s a bumpy scene. It goes a few seconds too long or is cut so short it makes you wonder why it wasn’t incorporated into another scene. Though this isn’t always the director’s fault (editors are the most undervalued members of a movie’s team), it’s hard to blame anyone else considering this is the director’s cut of Cop Land and Mangold wrote (overwrote?) the script.
That said, the movie’s classic cuts vastly overwhelm its minor messes. From the opening split scene bringing together the two towns to the aurally fascinating finalé, Mangold shows he had very specific ideas for visually capturing his script. He also proved he could execute them with the boldness of a much more seasoned operator. He understands what he’s making isn’t a slam-bang action yarn. It’s not The French Connection or The Departed. Cop Land is a slow burn the director describes as an “urban western” (the similarly titled bonus feature on the Blu-ray provides more clarification on the director’s ideas). He shoots it in a simple, lingering manner befitting the deliberate pacing.
And yes, at its head is the man who’s played multiple memorably muscular police officers going aggressively against type. Now, as Sheriff Freddy Heflin, Sly is a beefy, partially deaf, depressed drunk who can’t get accepted to the NYPD. He’s a decent shot with a pistol and may have a heart of gold, but the self-inflected hearing problem he suffered during a heroic moment in his youth is the reason he gives himself for failing ever since.
He’s also the town pushover. Practically everyone in Garrison, New Jersey has achieved what Freddy wishes he could obtain. They’re cops in the NYPD. He feels beneath them, and they don’t tell him he’s wrong. Even his only friend, Figgsy (Ray Liotta), seems to pity him more than support him. The movie’s morality is found in Freddy’s slow rise to respect. He needs to find it in himself, and when he does, he starts trying to earn it from others.
Stallone captures this transformation with a power and subtlety previously unseen by the actor. In the feature commentary recycled on the new Blu-ray edition of the film (all the extras were included in past releases), Sly says he thought the ideal animal to mimic his character after was a turtle. He moves slowly, both in his physical mannerisms and action taken. His protective shell is his uniform, but it’s not the uniform he wants to wear. It’s merely the only one he has. Yet once his curiosity is piqued, he’s sternly determined.
All of this comes across in the star’s impacting performance. His eyes are simply dead to the world for the first 20 minutes. Slowly, they start to burn before they catch fire in the film’s phenomenal conclusion. Wisely, though, he doesn’t totally turn over. He’s not a new man by the end. Instead, he’s an altered version of the disappointed denizen from before. Credit certainly goes to Mangold the writer, but so much of Freddy’s character comes from Sly’s complete commitment to laying low. His small shoulder shrugs, lowered gaze, and dazed demeanor are all unique to this role. His presence, though no longer physical, is far from lessoned. He stands toe to toe with Robert De Niro in a few key scenes, and it will be an eternal debate over who held the frame better.
Of course, Mangold knows he needs juicier matters than his lead’s internal struggle to make a movie that’s more than just another actors’ piece. That’s where the rest of the cast comes in to help out. From the aforementioned De Niro to the sometimes spotty Harvey Keitel to the ever-committed Ray Liotta, the cast seems to be competing for the Best Supporting Actor prize in every scene. That’s not to say they’re hamming it up – far from it. The subtly powerful film brings out the best of each actor’s quiet side. Even when Liotta brings the heat in a few fiery scenes, he does so without completely blowing his lid.
The disappointing rehash of special features combined with the simplistic visual style make the latest edition of Cop Land almost unnecessary. If you own the DVD, you’re not missing out on anything other than a more lasting platform for the movie. That being said, any fan of the actors, especially Sly, should absolutely check out this undervalued drama. It, like its lead actor, won’t disappoint.