Although too simplistic in its good-guys/bad-guys approach to morally and emotionally ambiguous material, “Cop Land” emerges as an absorbing and dramatic yarn about exposing the evil doings of some of New York’s finest. Boasting a stellar cast led by Sylvester Stallone in his first human-scaled picture in years, this Miramax release looks like a good, if not spectacular, commercial performer.
As police-corruption dramas go, this one lacks the complexity and density of such true-life thrillers as “Serpico” and “Prince of the City.” Set mostly in a small New Jersey town just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, writer-director James Mangold’s tale has the feel of a classic frontier Western in which the amiable sheriff is forced to wake up to the dastardly doings of the community’s most prominent citizens and decide whether to take them on. One guess what he does.
A random but catastrophic incident sets in motion a chain of events that eventually unravels a whole way of life. Late one night, Murray Babitch (Michael Rapaport), a young off-duty cop, is sideswiped on the George Washington Bridge by two joy-riding black men. Pursuing them, Murray sees one of them brandishing what looks very much like a large gun and fires on them before crashing into their car, killing them.
The racial circumstances of the situation guarantee a hail of criticism about police brutality in the big city. So in the contentious aftermath, presided over in part by senior cop Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel), who happens to be Murray’s uncle, a gun is conveniently planted in the youths’ car where there was none before, and Donlan takes advantage of the chaos to hide his nephew but claim that he’s jumped off the bridge. Despite the lack of a body, Murray is given a full police funeral befitting a civic hero.
In fact, Ray has taken Murray across the river to Garrison, N.J., a town whose population of 1,280 is composed largely of New York cops. Quiet, idyllic in a working-class way and an ideal place to bring up kids, Garrison is understandably virtually crime-free, which gives longtime sheriff Freddy Heflin (Stallone) nothing much to do but negotiate domestic squabbles and break up fights between school boys.
Freddy would have joined the NYPD himself had he not lost his hearing in one ear when, as a teenager, he rescued a girl named Liz from a car that had gone into a lake. Freddy still carries a torch for Liz (Annabella Sciorra), but she chose to marry another cop, temperamental macho man Joey (Peter Berg).
Suspecting a coverup, internal affairs special agent Moe Tilden (Robert De Niro) pays a visit to Garrison but is unable to rouse Freddy to the smell of the stench around him; Freddy is too set in his ways, and goes back too far with his vaguely condescending friends, to want to move against them.
There is a key man in the middle of the two factions, however: Gary Figgis (Ray Liotta), a former member of the inner circle who is convinced that Ray and his cronies murdered his partner when the latter was about to testify against them. Suspiciously, Gary’s house burns to the ground one night after a particularly vicious argument in the local police hangout, the 4 Aces.
Gradually, but with the inevitability of a traditional morality play, the opposing forces fall into place, and Sheriff Freddy, the naive onlooker, is forced to take a stand. As Moe has predicted they would, Ray and his goons try to kill Murray, who is officially already dead. But they botch the job, and when Murray takes to the woods, Ray uses his pull with the mayor’s office to get his adversary Moe’s investigation canceled.
This isolates Freddy even further in his determination to do the right thing and, like such Western heroes as Gary Cooper’s sheriff in “High Noon,” he must finally take on his enemies alone in the streets of the town.
The increasingly broad strokes with which the story is painted serve to simplify rather than deepen it, and to make it seem more artificially constructed than need be. As Freddy’s glazed, lazy view of life sharpens into motivating moral focus, one expects, and hopes, that the resolution will result in more of a mental chess game than in a typical bloodbath, especially after Gary encourages Freddy to go after Ray “diagonally.”
Despite these disappointments, however, there are real satisfactions to be had in the film’s presentation of a highly distinctive community. There is a recognizable style and pace of life in this fictional town, a sense of much interpersonal and family water under the bridge, a feeling of both bitterness and satisfaction with a way of life.
The actors also bring their own past connections, and significant iconographic weight, to the proceedings: De Niro and Keitel from “Mean Streets”; De Niro and Liotta from “GoodFellas”; De Niro and Cathy Moriarty, featured here as Keitel’s wife, from “Raging Bull”; and Stallone summoning up memories of his first co-starring role, more than two decades ago, in the low-budget “The Lords of Flatbush.”
Having put on quite a bit of weight to play the sluggish Freddy, Stallone shambles about in a way that emphasizes the sadness of the character, a man whose one shining moment — the rescue of Liz — and original dreams lie far behind him.
He takes so long to shake off the cobwebs that one begins to wonder if he’s ever going to manage it, but he does, and the performance is an agreeable one that gives the film a sympathetic center, even if the role, as written, could have cut a bit deeper.
Liotta, Keitel, De Niro and Berg register strongly in important supporting parts, while, among the women, Sciorra touchingly reveals Liz’s vulnerability but the necessity of her living with her life decisions.
Mangold, whose only previous feature was “Heavy,” offers a good balance between intimate moments, dynamic confrontations and physical action. Film is modestly scaled, with clear, unfussy lensing by Eric Edwards and an evocative, almost mournful score by Howard Shore.