Sylvester Stallone has blazed a perverse career pathhe has worked for the past 15 years to erase everything moviegoers first liked about him. It was 21 years ago that Stallone, then a failing actor and novice screenwriter, staked his career on a sweet, sentimental script about a tank-town fighter who gets one shot at the big time. To the surprise of everyone, including its makers, Rocky became a runaway success. In life, as on screen, Stallone suddenly embodied a cherished figure: the loser who beats the odds to become a winner.
Yet something about Rocky’s lumpy, low-key softie hero must’ve spooked his creator. Maybe it was the reminder that Rocky was only a lucky punch away from being a loser once more. Stallone fixed that. He spent three additional Rocky movies bulking up poor Rocky Balboa, transforming him into a tanned, oiled Überman. By 1985’s Rocky IV every trace of the vulnerable underdog was gone. In his place was a jingoistic meat sculpture draped in Old Gloryan image Stallone perpetuated in one grotesque, reactionary action flick after another. And when sheer muscle couldn’t eliminate every trace of the loser, Stallone encased himself in armor in the laughable Judge Dredd. That did the trick. He finally succeeded where Apollo Creed, Clubber Lang, and Ivan Drago had failedhe wiped out Rocky Balboa.
Problem was, people kinda liked the loser Rocky. Stallone trotted him back out for one last desultory picture in 1990, but by then the beefed-up actor was no longer credible as an underdog. And nobody liked Judge Dredd or the pinheaded Daylight. To win back moviegoers’ affectionas well as some respectStallone has now taken the surest route possible: playing a sadder sack than Rocky ever was. Sheriff Freddy Heflin, the character Stallone plays in the highly touted new drama Cop Land, is the person Rocky Balboa would’ve been if Apollo Creed had cold-cocked him after a single awful round and the fighter had spent the last 21 years nursing the hurt.
Stallone’s Freddy is a genial, paunchy fellow who patrols the streets of Garrison, a sleepy New Jersey town just across the Hudson from New York City. He doesn’t have much to do. Many years earlier, a group of NYPD shields from across the river moved to Garrison and made it their safe haven, a place where no crook would be stupid enough even to jaywalk. Their leader, the veteran cop Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel), set up Freddy as sheriffmainly because Freddy’s no threat. Freddy dreamed of becoming one of New York’s finest until a heroic rescue effort left him deaf in one ear. Now he spends his nights at the town’s designated cop bar, idolizing the men who work across the river.
But Ray has trouble. An encounter between his hotheaded officer nephew (Michael Rapaport) and two taunting motorists turned fatal, and a last-ditch cover-up attempt went haywire. An Internal Affairs investigator, played by Robert De Niro, has uncovered a paper trail of corruption that links the cops’ cozy homes in Garrison to a fortune in mob kickbacks. What the detective doesn’t have is firsthand evidenceand for that he turns to Freddy. Suddenly, the guy who never got to be a cop must choose between going after Ray and his cronies or remaining a lawman in name only.
Bruce Willis’ career boost after Pulp Fiction showed name actors the value of appearing in smaller-budgeted “indie” ensemble pieces; the flashy part gave him a chance to flex acting muscles he hadn’t used in years, while the company of lesser-known but better-regarded talents like Samuel L. Jackson and Harvey Keitel had a rising-tide-raises-all-boats effect on his reputation. It didn’t hurt that the movie grossed $100 million. The lesson wasn’t lost on either Stallone or the makers of Cop Land, who have surrounded their bankable name with high-powered talent. In addition to Keitel and De Niro, Ray Liotta has a meaty supporting role as a cop with ambiguous loyalties, and if you blink you’ll miss the likes of Janeane Garofalo, John Spencer, Deborah Harry, and even the rapper Method Man in the tiniest of parts. The big advantage of all this talent is that it makes Stallone seem like even more of an underdog. We can’t help but root for the matinee idol, who appears outmatched by the American cinema’s heaviest hitters.
In truth, though, it’s director James Mangold’s script that’s outmatched. There are two stories going on simultaneously herea moody, introspective character study about a shy, inarticulate man, and a cop thriller with a complicated plot involving a faked death, mob infiltration, drug money, and dangerous infidelities. The presence of all the big-name talent only points out how sketchy the script and characters are. (A lesser light, Terminator 2’s morphing villain Robert Patrick, just about steals the movie as the nastiest of Ray’s buddies.) A character study and thriller elements are not necessarily incompatible (viz. Sling Blade). But in the awkward, fitful Cop Land, Mangold (who wrote and directed last year’s Heavy) shows neither the patience for one nor the flair for the other.
The moral ambiguities in the premisewho decides what’s wrong in a community of lawmen, and who upholds what’s right?and the novel setting of Garrison promise a much more complex movie than the one Mangold delivers. Mangold has almost no visual instinct, but he does have a keen sense for the slo-o-ow passage of time in a small town and the way people who don’t get along coexist. (The scenes in the cop bar, where tempers and tension are always rising, are the most convincing and atmospheric in the movie.) But as Freddy awakens to his duty, Cop Land turns into a suburban variation on High Noon, right down to the climactic gun battle in the streets with the sheriff who stands alone. The ending benefits from an interesting gimmick that I won’t reveal, but Mangold doesn’t have the directorial command to pull it off entirelythe same trick was used a lot more effectively in the 1955 classic The Big Combo.
What’s missing are the little moments that would fully shape these characters. Scenes meant to flesh out relationships get cut off before their emotional payoff, most noticeably the sad, tentative moments between Freddy and Liz (Annabella Sciorra), the unattainable love of his life. Mangold snips off their scenes as if we wouldn’t want to hear what they say after they kiss, or after she chews him out. Because we don’t get enough of these small details, the larger events sometimes don’t make much senselike the heroic reappearance of a seemingly remorseless killer.
And Stallone? The big palooka acquits himself honorably, although, to be honest, he’s given better performances in more disreputable moviesthe unjustly slammed 1991 comedy Oscar, for one. He relies a little too often on sweet, slightly dopey salt-of-the-earth expressions that are an actor’s mistaken conception of simplicity; Stallone has too much comic timing and rapport with other actors to pull off the kind of glazed-over routine that worked for, say, Peter Fonda in Ulee’s Gold. But he rekindles the goodwill that audiences felt toward his lovable misfit Rocky. The movie is most affecting when Freddy endures the scorn of others with sleepy, downcast eyes and subconscious flinches; in his confrontations with Keitel and especially De Niro, Stallone underplays dramaticallythe equivalent of a fighter who takes every punch square in the face in the hopes of wearing out his opponent. The technique works. As an actor, Stallone is never more appealing than when he’s hanging on the ropes.
In the movie’s most pleasing scene, one of Ray’s toughs tries to intimidate Freddy at a carnival game; for the first time in the movie, Freddy shows he’s capable of more than anyone suspects. As misbegotten as Cop Land often is, I’m glad Sylvester Stallone got a chance to do the same. Even after 20 years of mostly crappy movies, it’s still too soon to count him out.
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