Cop Land (review)

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On the Job, On the Take

Boy, you can really tell the difference between one artist’s vision and a movie made by committee. Cop Land, written and directed by James Mangold, carves its own little self-contained niche in a genre that sometimes seems overdone: stories about dirty cops doing dirty deeds.

Sylvester Stallone (giving his best performance, well, probably since Rocky) plays Freddy Heflin, sheriff of Garrison, NJ, a small town in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge, which crosses the Hudson River from the emerald city of New York. Deaf in one ear since he was a teenager, when he rescued a girl who drove off a bridge, he’s always longed to be one of New York’s Finest, but his disability keeps him off the force. He’s a decent man, but his desire to be a police officer is the weakness that allows a bunch of shady city cops to take advantage of him.
Using a loophole in the law that requires New York cops to live within the city, a group of buddy cops from the same precinct set up homesteads in Garrison, financed by cheap mob mortgages, and promote Sheriff Heflin as a kind of figurehead. The city cops are the powers behind the throne — the cast, including Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, and Robert Patrick, all in a riot of bad haircuts and cheap clothes, is uniformly fabulous as the big fish strutting around in their sad little pond.

The real trouble starts when a nephew of Keitel’s cop shoots two young black men on the George Washington Bridge, which sets in motion a chain of events that will rock Garrison to its foundations and turn the dirty cops against one another. And when an Internal Affairs investigator (Robert DeNiro in a deliciously cheap suit) arrives in Garrison to enlist the sheriff’s help in bringing the city cops to justice, it finally shakes Heflin out of his lifelong complacency.

Cop Land‘s is a complex story, one that weaves the past and present together in ways that you must pay some attention to in order to understand. The multitude of characters, in the hands of a less astute filmmaker, might become confusing, but they’re all crisp and distinct here, defined by deceptively simple touches. Heflin, for example, has been for years quietly in love with the rescued girl (Annabella Sciorra), now married to a city cop (Peter Berg) — and he knows she knows it — but neither of them ever do quite what you might expect with that knowledge.

Mangold’s script and direction are full of irony and symbolism that never knocks you over the head. The incident on the George Washington Bridge, for example, which underlines the entire film, is only made more powerful by the fact that it occurred on the span that separates the big city from the small town — the big city the cops were trying to get their families away from, and still they brought all the big-city bad stuff with them.

The aforementioned loophole is fictional — New York City police officers are actually required to live in New York City. James Mangold’s vision may be of an alternate world just slightly askew of our own, but it’s one of filmdom’s more truthful fictions in recent years.

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