Review: Cop Land (1997)


It took him twenty one years, but Sly Stallone proves once again that he can act!

Written By: James Mangold
Directed By: James Mangold

A movie such as Cop Land depends on its set up. The greatest movie in the world can be made after the set up, but if the set up doesn’t wash the rest of the movie doesn’t matter. Cop Land has a well constructed set up. It puts the characters where they need to be and makes sure we understand the way this world works. But, more than that it lays down the general atmosphere and understanding the atmosphere of Cop Land is of the utmost import. Cop Land isn’t a film that moves at high speed, it moves at a slow pace, it’s like a game of chess in that regard. Every sequence is a move on the chess board, some moves are better than others and not all move pay dividends. But, those first few moves are key and the first few moves that Cop Land makes set the board up perfectly.

From the set up the first thing that jumps out at the viewer is the cast. They are a peculiar lot, respected actors like Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel next to an action star like Sylvester Stallone, a B horror actor like Peter Berg, a comedian in Janeane Garofalo and a man we will always view as a Terminator in Robert Patrick. The cast is rounded out by great character actors and people in roles that they are incredibly natural at as corrupt cops and gangster like characters, or the wives of corrupt men. However, at the top it is an odd cast with a unique mixture of talent blending together nicely. Garofalo comes on screen and at first my thoughts migrated to her work as a comic actress, but all it took was a few seconds for me to forget about her in that capacity and view her as a character inhabiting this world. That is a sign of a well written script and a sure directing hand. But, acting wise the focus of Cop Land is squarely on Sylvester Stallone.

Rocky came out way back in 1976, and while Stallone may have shown some acting chops in that movie, he spent the years after it banking on his name in a series of profitable, and often good, but not challenging action movies. Cop Land is a return to the dramatic acting we saw from Stallone in Rocky. For Cop Land to work at all it is necessary for Stallone to stand toe to toe with the likes of Keitel and De Niro. Not only does Stallone do this, but in the quiet moments, whether by himself or with Ray Liotta, he delivers in spades. He brings a power to those moments, a quiet hurt and eventually a quiet thirst or hunger. It may have taken him twenty one years, but Cop Land is further proof that when he wants to Stallone can act.

The story presented in Cop Land isn’t incredibly original, the basic premise is interesting, but the ins and outs of the story can be associated with many a gangster flick over the years. However, what truly propels Cop Land is when near the end it takes on a Western feel. Left and right people abandon Stallone, he becomes Gary Cooper in High Noon, looking for someone to take a stand with him, but no one is willing to. The good cops shun him, his friends run out on him, his girl rejects him (and that is an important moment, because when the obstacle to his love for her dies I thought it was too easy of a story path, but it ends up being a path he can’t even take) and one of his deputies would rather leave town than help him. If this was a typical movie, Stallone would have rounded up a posse and saved the day, but Cop Land is far from typical.

Perfection be not thy name however, because as great as Cop Land was there were a few moments that stick out. We have been shown visually what happened to Stallone in the river, yet the script feels the need for a highly exposition laden speech at the bar from Ray Liotta telling us most of what we have already seen. There are also a few times near the end when the story comes together a little too easily for Stallone, but such is the way of the crime drama.

The few gaffes in Cop Land are offset by neat little touches like the way sound was handled in the final shoot out or the somewhat not so happy ending. Cop Land isn’t a movie that ever gets talked about, but it is a movie that more people need to see. Maybe it isn’t on the same level as other serious crime dramas, but it is a fine entry in that genre and an overlooked gem. If for no other reason you need to see Cop Land for the experience of Sly Stallone going toe to toe with Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro and not giving an inch.




5 responses to “Review: Cop Land (1997)

  1. nice piece, Cop Land is a great show. Stallone is a solid, understated rock amid of flurry of OTT shouting from better actors and yet it all just works somewhow. its quite a serious movie but also manages to be great fun – the final shootout is ridiculous yet all the more fun for it. james mangold is a versatile director and this has a good case for being his best movie

  2. Bill Thompson

    I obviously liked Cop Land quite a bit, but as far as Mangold films go nothing tops Walk The Line for me.

  3. Walk the Line was a little too ‘biopic by numbers’ for my liking, there was nothing surprising in it, although i did enjoy it. when a film has that much great music its hard not to enjoy it.

  4. An interesting story, just too predictable.

  5. Ross – Walk the Line is still a favorite of mine. I can see your complaints, but obviously I feel differently,

    Rok – Hmmm, I didn’t find it all that predictable.

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