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The Police Drama League

By Alex Twersky

This review is dedicated to the memory of M. Ari Iacovini, someone who understood the language of great films.

OK, movie fans, it's time for a quiz. Today's question: What is Cop Land?

  1. A riveting biopic about 20th century composer Aaron Cop Land starring Molly Ringwald and Scott Baio.
  2. A new amusement park in NYC featuring cool rides like Plunger Peak.
  3. The new cop thriller from James Mangold that deposits Sylvester Stallone in the company of Mafia-film alumna Robert de Niro, Harvey Keitel, and Ray Liotta.

If you answered a or b, put down the New York Post and stop renting so many Sega games at Blockbuster (they're cheaper to buy at that pace.) For those of you who selected c, particularly the ones who have already seen Cop Land on the big screen, you'll feel as snug as being home at Thanksgiving when considering the conventional elements that this cop thriller attempts to raise to high art.

The hype surrounding Cop Land has been characteristically intense. What else can you expect from a film whose principals have shot, stabbed and gulleted more people onscreen than even the guys at Troma can imagine? Stallone has garnered a fair share of praise for his austere turn as the laconic sheriff of Garrison, NJ; a fictional town in the Garden State populated almost exclusively by NYPD officers and their families. The tight-knit community he protects is thrown into a tailspin when "Superboy," a young cop twitchily portrayed by Michael Rapoport, is involved in a fatal shooting on the GWB. Rather than have him face the hounds at Internal Affairs, "Superboy's" uncle Ray (Harvey Keitel) implausibly claims he jumped off the bridge transforming this story from fiction to farce.

Stallone's character, Freddie Heflin, walks into the middle of this mess with a thud. He's really a hapless fellow. You see, he went deaf in one ear rescuing a very pretty girl (Anabella Sciorra) from a very submerged car. This heroic feat killed his chances of becoming a NYC cop, but won him the consolation prize of being a NJ sheriff. (Personally, I think workman's comp and a nice insurance sales job would have been more stimulating.) The young damsel Freddie rescued from becoming fish food has repaid him by marrying someone else, a menacing (guess?) NYPD officer named Joey (Peter Berg).

The set-up paints Harvey Keitel's Ray as some sort of law enforcement homesteader who founded Garrison as a haven for cops, where they could get cheap mortgages and live in veritable seclusion while armed to the teeth. All of that social engineering is threatened by the "Superboy" imbroglio, forcing the subdued Heflin to a moral crossroads: uncover the truth at the risk of unleashing a maelstrom of police corruption and possibly send Garrison property values tumbling, or remain silent and continue to preside as the puppet law officer of an unholy town. If you were in Stalloneís shoes, what would you do?

In many ways, Stallone tries to strike an elegiac figure, like that of Gary Cooper in High Noon: Town Law tracking down Rogue Bandits who threaten all that is good and wholesome in society. And after all is said and done, Stallone should be commended for his return to "serious" acting. He has put on a couple of spare tires for the role, and he and his cronies worked for scale because of the meaty characters they were promised. There's one hitch, though. The characters we get have got very little meat on the bone. Heflin is somewhat intriguing as a shadow of a man floating through life with hunched shoulders and unrealized dreams. It's everybody else that does his usual mob shtick. Ray Liotta is hyperactive and breathless; Harvey Keitel drips menace while wearing a smile; and Robert de Niro gets the usual laughs while filling up the screen with his blustery authority as Internal Affairs investigator Moe Tilden. (Rule of thumb: no full-fledged gangster flick is without Frank Vincent's name in the credits.)

The story suffers from the usual plot shortfalls, but where electric performances plug the gaps is where Cop Land falters. There is a host of "A" list actors here that are underutilized or not significant at all (case in point: Janeane Garofalo as Deputy Cindy Betts.) For a very long time, Hollywood has orchestrated a system of expensive actors making sub-par films, conditioning audiences to expect less. Cop Land marks a significant transition by allowing some very expensive actors to take some risks (including personal financial ones) and make a self-proclaimed film of substance. Unfortunately, Cop Land as a whole falls just shy of that target, but it leaves us with the hope that the trend it inaugurates will not die. Films and actors of substance are too precious for us to let that happen.

Copyright ©1998. New York Trash. All rights reserved.