We don't always take the most direct path to discovering
a film. When Cop Land was headed to screens back in
1997 I couldn't wait until release date, thanks to my love
of director James Mangold's previous film, the quietly
powerful Heavy, and the unusually strong cast.
Instead, I acquired a VHS tape of... dubious origins from a
fine open air retailer on a street corner.
The quality was
something like watching the movie at the bottom of the
Mississippi River but the movie itself was a taut,
uncompromising police thriller, with little in the way of
unnecessary exposition and decidedly dark character
portraits. Once the film did hit theaters I headed in
expecting a more visually pleasant version of the engaging
drama I'd already experienced. Instead, I got an
overwrought, over-explained mainstream failure with a
tacked-on happy ending. I was mortified. What happened? It
seemed like the movie was completely different, not just in
a few added scenes, but in overall structure.
It turns out the film was a victim of test screening-itis.
Major changes were made after some test audience didn't
like the dark, brooding original cut. Thankfully Miramax
has decided to release a director's cut which, while not
quite as spare as that original tape, is a major
improvement over the theatrical version.
Land is the story of Freddy Heflin (Sylvester
Stallone), the sheriff of Garrison, New Jersey. Freddy has always dreamed of being a New York
City cop, often sitting on the far side of the George Washington Bridge, watch the twinkling of
the big city lights. The problem is that he lost the hearing in his right ear while performing
an act of heroism, a disability that disqualifies him from his dream job. Now he's overweight, understimulated, and depressed.
It doesn't help
that the town that Freddy watches over is a haven for big-city cops looking for a quiet place to
raise their families (the film seems to take place during the wild early-nineties.) This
tight-knit community barely needs a sheriff: With every other resident carrying a badge, a gun
and a chip on his shoulder, the law pretty much preserves itself.
Trouble starts early when
a young city cop nicknamed "Superboy" gets involved in a very violent "accident" on the bridge
(it takes place, of course, right on the literal border between New York and New Jersey) which
leads to all sorts of drama that I won't reveal here. The aftermath of all this tension is the
bursting to the surface of the seamy underbelly of Garrison. Nothing, of course, is as Freddy
has long assumed, and by the end of the film everything falls apart.
The first thing that hits you about Cop Land is the absurd strength of the cast. Every
shot seems to reveal another famous, and famously excellent, actor. The main players include
Stallone, Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta and Robert Patrick. The cast also includes
Michael Rapaport, Annabella Sciorra, John Spencer, Cathy Moriarty, Peter Berg and Janeane
Garofalo. Hell, even the bit parts are filled by the likes of Edie Falco, Debbie Harry, Method
Man, Frank Vincent and Malik Yoba. It's a little absurd and would have distracted from a weaker
film. Here, however, everyone does some of their finest work.
Of particular note are
Liotta (really perfecting the tweaked-out undercover cop-turned-addict), Patrick as the sinister
human equivalent of his pitiless T2 cyborg, and De Niro, who hasn't been this understated
and engulfed by an ordinary character since The King of Comedy. His every-man take on an Internal Affairs detective
is totally of a time and place; He's like Rupert Pupkin's more mature older brother who has no
interest in moving back into mom's basement. He's all business. A scene that he shares with
Keitel in a convenience store bristles with tension; The two characters have known each other for decades
but De Niro's switch over to IA has caused an irreparable rift (you sense there may be even
more to it than that.) But Mangold's blocking and the performances remind of the legendary
backroom conversation the two actors shared in Mean Streets and for a moment it seems
like maybe Charlie and Johnny Boy, those two meatheads, grew up and grew apart. Now running into each other all these
years later they can barely contain their mutual hatred while pretending to smile and catch up
on old times. It's a tiny scene, but to a long-time observer of these actors and the flawed
characters they've played, it's huge.
The lion's share of the work, even in this tremendous ensemble, falls on the shoulders of Sly
Stallone. This film was his chance to prove himself to be a serious actor, capable of pulling
off his own Raging Bull or Taxi Driver after years of soulless action flicks. The
sad fact is that he totally pulled it off and then got no recognition. The Stallone of the
Rambo and Rocky sequels is completely invisible inside the sad, lumpy sheriff.
It's not just that Stallone transformed his obscenely fit body into a formless blob for the film
(which is what got all the press at the time) but he creates this character from the inside. The
slouch, the shuffle, the droopy eyes. At one point Liotta helps a drunk Stallone to his car and the man looks shockingly tiny next to his co-star, like a shrunken, broken version of a hero. It's subtle work except that it's every little detail
about the way he is. The tiny little smile his mouth forms when another character condescends to
him. The way he spaces out in his cop car, gazing at what might have been. As he says at one
point, he only did one worthwhile thing in his life and that's the thing that ruined him. It's a
tough character and Stallone nails it.
The film itself is a throwback to the kinds of gritty cop dramas made in the 70's. The
characters are dark and often display their own code of what's right and wrong. The entire film
is infected with an uneasy sense that there are no true good guys. It's up to Freddy to try to
untangle what's going on, which isn't easy because the film leaves a lot of backstory murky,
which is great since that's how it would be. These characters have had many years to develop
their own interpersonal relationships and no outsider would be able to understand it all at
Of course, Mangold was punished for his audacity in not handing everything to the audience
on a platter with huge changes to the film. I'm happy to report that much of the ridiculous
tacked on ending from the theatrical version is gone. Added back in are many smaller moments
that help flesh out the characters. One segment that bugged me in the studio edit is annoyingly
still present (it's something that spells out a lot of what's going on rather than leaving it
murky) but overall this edit is a vast improvement. Mangold unfortunately ended up making a few
less interesting films after Cop Land (Kate & Leopold, Girl, Interrupted)
but after the thriller Identity he seems to be trying to get back to darker subject
matter. His next film, I'm happy to read, is Walk the Line, the biography of Johnny Cash.
Cash, a man with as much inner turmoil as the entire cast of Cop Land, should be perfect
material for Mangold, a filmmaker not afraid to peek into a troubled soul and not sell out what
he finds inside.
The anamorphic widescreen of Cop Land is really beautiful. I found the colors to be
vibrant and the image stunningly crisp, even when the lighting was dark and the locations dingy.
There is a clarity here that is terrific to see on a somewhat smaller film. Eric Edwards'
cinematography makes the most of mundane and modest locations, really creating an impressive
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is pretty good, if not quite as stunning as the
picture. Sometimes the location recording and the post-production dubbing are a bit too tonally different
and some voices are a bit muddled compared to others. One scene appeared to have a bit of a lag
in the sync between audio and picture (I thought it might have been my player, but then the next
scene was fine. Weird.) Overall, however, a fine effort.
A nice selection of extras. Foremost is the commentary track from Mangold, producer Cathy
Konrad, and, best of all, Sylvester Stallone and Robert Patrick. I feel like getting a star like
Stallone to do commentary for a smaller, older film is a real coup. Of course, I wouldn't care
if he was boring, but he comes off as a funny, intelligent actor with a lot of insightful
comments. All of the participants are great here, sharing stories from the set and discussing
where Cop Land fits into their careers. It's an especially useful commentary since the
film was both a high-point for everyone artistically and such a disappointment commercially.
Stallone clearly feels like he missed his chance to move into a completely different world of
acting when this film didn't succeed at the box office. There is also a lot of talk of the
changes in the edit and about the other actors. Discussing an extended argument Mangold had with
Keitel and De Niro over who should enter a scene first, Stallone says something like "I left,
had a facelift and came back and they were still arguing!" One of the best commentaries I've
heard in a long time.
There is a 15 minute or so behind the scenes piece that consists mostly (or entirely) of footage
shot at the time. Mangold discusses how his love of westerns influenced the lone-sheriff style
of the film. It's a good piece.
A couple of deleted scenes with optional commentary are included. There probably could have been
more in here but it's still good to have. And a storyboard-film comparison is included.
One of the recent examples of a "lost" film that suffered at the hands
of the studio, Cop Land has been given something of a new lease on life. This excellent
disc rights some of the wrongs of the earlier cut and presents an interesting,
thought-provoking, exciting film stocked with more great performances than most entire shelves