Second Glance: The Scorsese-esque Melancholy of ‘Cop Land’

James Mangold's 1997 police corruption drama boasts a jaw-dropping cast, headed up by a startlingly natural Sylvester Stallone.

Welcome to “Second Glance,” a bi-weekly column that spotlights an older film of note (thanks to an anniversary, a connection to a new release, or new disc or streaming availability) that was not as commercially or critically successful as it should’ve been. This week, on the anniversary of its release, we look back at James Mangold’s all-star police corruption tale, Cop Land.

When James Mangold’s Cop Land was released to theaters twenty years ago this week, it came on a wave of expectation and hype that was all but impossible to meet. This was a big, prestige crime picture from Miramax, three years after Pulp Fiction, and the similarities couldn’t have been clearer: it was the second film from a rising young director – James Mangold, in this case – boasting a big ensemble cast (including Harvey Keitel) led by a giant star of the ‘70s and ‘80s who was sorely in need of a career renaissance. The Travolta of Cop Land was Sylvester Stallone, who (in true dedication-to-craft form) put on 40 pounds and worked for SAG scale to play a sad-sack small-town sheriff. Whispers abounded that Stallone was going to get an Oscar nomination, his first since Rocky all those years ago.

And then the movie came, and quickly went. Reviews were mixed – not bad, exactly, but not the kind that a movie like this one needed, and the commercial reception was muted as well (Miramax did the film no favors by releasing it in the dead zone of August rather than the awards-friendly fall, in what could only be read as a vote of low confidence). It did fine – $44 million on a $15 million budget – but certainly not Pulp Fiction numbers, and that was the expectation. (“It’s such a dark and sad tale, less jazzy and more of a kind of morality tale” than Fiction, Mangold would later explain. “The star value got so high, and Miramax wanted the grosses to be so high.”) Stallone didn’t get his Oscar nomination; that was still nearly twenty years away. But it was a hell of a performance, and Cop Land holds up as a pretty good little thriller, a Sidney Lumet movie in a Martin Scorsese movie’s clothing.

That comparison is mostly due to the supporting cast, which is loaded with Scorsese vets: Ray Liotta, Frank Pelligrino, and Paul Herman (Goodfellas), Cathy Moriarty (Raging Bull), Frank Vincent (both of those films, plus Casino), Keitel (you know), and Robert De Niro (you really know). Much of the rest of the cast is comprised of actors who would turn up, at one point or another, on The Sopranos, which premiered two years later: Edie Falco, John Ventimiglia, Robert Patrick, Annabella Sciorra, Tony Sirico, and Arthur Nascarella. (Also appearing: Peter Berg, John Spencer, Malik Yoba, Paul Calderon, Noah Emmerich, Janeane Garafalo, Bruce Altman, and Method Man. It really is a jaw-dropping cast.)

But the story is pure Lumet, diving into the world of New York police corruption and cover-up. It’s set in the fictional New Jersey town of Garrison, just over the river, inhabited almost entirely by New York City cops; according to De Niro’s opening voice-over, “They made themselves a place where the shit wouldn’t touch ‘em.” Stallone’s Freddy Heflin wants to be one of those cops, but an act of bravery (to save his high school crush, sensitively played by Sciorra) left him deaf in one ear, and thus ineligible for the force. He instead toils as the sheriff of Garrison, and in a town that’s filled with cops, there’s not much crime to police. Maybe.

You see, one night there’s this encounter on the bridge that goes bad, when a car full of African-Americans wave a steering wheel lock at an off-duty cop (Michael Rapaport); he mistakes it for a gun and shoots them dead. (It’s more plot point than social commentary, but it still has a kick; the scene is filled with echoes of NYPD’s ongoing history of killing unarmed black suspects, before the film and since.) Keitel, the force long-timer who basically runs the show in Garrison, is the officer’s uncle, so he’s got reason to “fix” this mess, and when an attempt to plant a gun fails, the suspect fakes his own suicide. He just has to hide in Garrison for a while, where presumably, nobody will notice.

About the only guy who comes looking is Internal Affairs officer Moe Tilden, played by a bristling, impatient De Niro, with just the right bad haircut and facial hair. The charged scene in a convenience store between frequent co-stars Keitel and De Niro isn’t exactly Heat Deux, but it is a thrill to see them share the screen again, playing all the scene’s forced grins and thick subtext (and nodding to similar scenes in Mean Streets and Taxi Driver). Liotta, meanwhile, is flat-out terrific in a performance that begins at the level of bleary-eyed, coked-up desperation in the May 8 sequence of Goodfellas, and keeps digging; he’s the dirty, in-too-deep undercover guy who’s trying to get out, advising his buddy Freddy not to take Tilden up on his offer to help him by being “a real cop.”

In other words, Freddy is an honorable man in a crooked town, a broad set-up that tips the picture’s Western influence (echoes that would recur in Mangold’s most recent picture, Logan). By the end of the film, Freddy has locked himself in the jailhouse to keep the bad guys at bay, a la Rio Bravo; when he tries to take his man in, Uncle Ray’s goons fire a gun next to his good ear. Stallone plays the pain that follows with agonizing realism, and Howard Shore’s ace score segues into his damaged headspace, all muted environmental sounds and the squeals of his decaying hearing. And from there, we get the figure of the lone lawman walking the streets of his city, gun in hand, steely determination on his face, choosing at long last to stand up and fight back. By the time he arrives at Tilden’s door, bleeding but immovable, it’s not only an inspiring moment, but an emotional one – particularly as Tilden encourages him to “Come on inside,” accepting and protecting him.

There’s something fascinating happening between the lines in that moment as well. Stallone’s physical immersion in the role was breathlessly reported, and the first time you see his gut, as he leans over the neighborhood bar’s pinball machine (which chirps “You have no authority” when he loses, a detail that’s a touch on the nose), it is jarring. But it was the right move. The oiled-up physical specimen that Stallone usually presented himself as didn’t match this character at all, and he uses his physical transformation to craft a likable schlub turn, reminiscent of the original Rocky. He’s a sad guy, mournfully spinning old Springsteen songs (from The River, of course), and this is a quiet, understated, melancholy piece of work; he lets Kietel glower, Liotta chew the scenery, and De Niro have the meltdowns. He doesn’t try to top them, choosing instead to underplay, beautifully. You get drawn into the way he listens, or the simplicity with which he explains his motives to Keitel’s Ray: “I look at this town, and I don’t like what I see anymore.”

More than that, though, there’s something wonderful about the way the film uses Stallone’s (presumed) intimidation towards his co-stars, who were roughly his critical equals post-Rocky, but who spent the years after accumulating awards and kudos while he grew more cartoonish, in increasingly disreputable vehicles. The reverence and hesitation Freddy feels towards these “real cops,” and his desire to be one of them, isn’t hard to conflate with Stallone’s own task in Cop Land, to prove himself more than a name and a muscled-up husk. When Tilden approaches Freddy, he cuts him down: “You may be law enforcement, and so am I. But you are not a cop.” Substitute “movie star” for “law enforcement” and “actor” for “cop,” and you’ve got some idea of the off-screen dynamic at play. And ultimately, Cop Land’s greatest accomplishment – so many years before Creed – was to watch Stallone remind us that he is, indeed, an actor after all.

“Cop Land” is streaming on HBO GO and DirecTV, and available for rental or purchase via Amazon, iTunes, and the usual platforms.