We take a look back at James Mangold’s Cop Land, which features one of Sylvester Stallone’s best ever performances.
1996 was a dark year for The Italian Stallion. Sylvester Stallone had two pricey flops in 1995, with Judge Dredd and Assassins. His Christmas of 1996 disaster movie release, Daylight, was another box office bomb. Just a few years before, Stallone had made a significant comeback with Cliffhanger and Demolition Man, but now the whole industry was changing. Carolco, the company that financed some of the era’s biggest hits, had gone bankrupt, and action movies were getting smaller and smaller. Arnold Schwarzenegger was on the decline, with Eraser a smaller hit than usual. Jean Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal were only a few years away from making direct-to-video movies. What was Sly to do? The result is one of his very best movies –Cop Land – as we explore in the episode of Sylvester Stallone Revisited.
In the 1990s, one of the biggest stars on the planet was Sylvester Stallone’s former protege, John Travolta. In 1983, Stallone directed him in Staying Alive, a movie that reformed his Saturday Night Fever anti-hero into a quasi-Rocky, and Stallone resculpted the actor’s physique in his image. While a hit, Travolta’s career had faltered badly in the eighties and early nineties. The only movies his people would actually see were the Look Who’s Talking movies, where Travolta played second banana to Bruce Willis’s talking baby. Even that franchise had petered out when the kids started to be able to speak and they ended up using the talking gimmick on animals. His career was such a joke that The Simpsons aired this BRUTAL dig. Yet, he had the last laugh when he signed on to do a low-budget indie called Pulp Fiction for this guy named Quentin Tarantino. Travolta was propelled back to the A-list overnight thanks to a string of hits.
Stallone’s career was in the dumps, so he opted to do what Travolta did and turn his attention to the indie world. By this point, “Indies” were all the rage thanks to a company called Miramax, run by a fellow you might have heard of named Harvey Weinstein. To be honest, Miramax’s movies could scarcely be called Indies, as Disney owned the company and ol’ Harvey Scissorhands was known to be more controlling than even the most hardcore studio exec. But, the movies they were making were good and had a way of relaunching careers and even winning Oscars.
Cop Land was written by a young James Mangold. At the time, he was considered a rising talent, with his film Heavy earning solid reviews. His script centred around a small New Jersey town populated almost exclusively by dirty cops, who run the city as their little fiefdom. The NYPD’s Internal Affairs know they’re crooked, but the crew is out of reach. The only law in this Copland is a lazy, depressed sheriff named Freddy, who was the town’s golden boy but lost his chance of becoming a cop after he went deaf in one ear, saving the town’s beauty queen from a car wreck. Freddy hero-worships the cops and lets them do whatever they want, but when one of the cops is involved in a shooting that triggers the attention of the NYPD, Freddy is approached and asked to help bust these notorious cops. Where will his allegiance lie? With his so-called cop buddies who’ve made him their puppet? Or with the law?
The lead role of Sheriff Freddy was widely coveted, with John Travolta and Tom Hanks both linked to the part. Eventually, the notion was struck to cast Stallone in his first-straight-up drama since FIST in 1979. The role would call for him to gain weight, and his involvement in the movie was heavily hyped, with the buzz being that this would do for him what Pulp Fiction did for Travolta. While the film had a low-budget and everyone worked for scale, Miramax assembled something of a dream cast for the movie. Harvey Keitel would play the movie’s villain, Ray Donlan, the most senior cop in town and the one who coordinates all the scams with his number-two, Jack Rucker, played by Robert Patrick. Michael Rappaport would play his snivelling nephew, Murray, who kills an unarmed black man in a drive-by shooting, sparking the investigation into the town. Peter Berg, who was still a year away from making his directorial debut with Very Bad Things, would be in it, along with many future members of the Sopranos cast, including Edie Falco, Annabella Sciorra, and Frank Vincent, plus Janeanne Garofalo, character actor John Spencer, Cathy Moriarty, and the late Ray Liotta in the movie’s juices role, Figgsy, the coked-up crooked cop who, surprisingly, serves as the movie’s conscience and is Freddy’s only real friend. The biggest casting coup was Robert De Niro, who signed on to play a vital role as IA detective Moe Tilden, and the film would reunite best buds Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro for the first time since 1984’s Falling in Love.
Sounds great, right? What happened to Cop Land is strange as the film was successful but, for some reason, did absolutely nothing for Stallone’s career. In the summer of ’97, Sly was everywhere, poking fun at himself by hosting Saturday Night Live, while everyone called this his comeback. It was the movie that was supposed to put him on the same level as De Niro and Pacino, and it did quite well at the box office, earning $44 million domestically, which made it Sly’s biggest hit in years. Yet, it wasn’t the cultural phenomenon Pulp Fiction was, and critics were shockingly cool on the flick, with many knocking Sly’s performance, although his notorious enemy, the Razzies, had the good taste not to nominate him. The movie didn’t do a thing for Stallone, who would go on to make the slasher film D-Tox and two more flops, Driven and the Get Carter remake, before taking an extended break from the big screen. It all ended well for Sly, but Cop Land became a footnote.
What’s the deal? If you’ve seen Cop Land, you’ll know that it is one of Stallone’s best movies, and his performance is excellent. However, it’s a small, character-driven drama and not the genre-changing behemoth Pulp Fiction was, James Mangold has always been interested in westerns, and Cop Land is very much a modern-day version, with Stallone the cowardly sheriff who shows courage in the end and becomes a hero. It’s a morality tale and a good one at that. Mangold’s movie is stylish, with some great Bruce Springsteen tracks on the soundtrack and a whole bunch of great performances. One thing to note is how Ray Lotta walks away with the movie as the half-crazed cokehead Figgs. You’re led to believe he’ll be the movie’s big bad guy, as he’s coded as bad, with Liotta playing him dishevelled, with the same kind of coke-crazy Look he has in the last act of Goodfellas. Yet, Figgsy turns out to be the one guy Freddy can rely on, with him sacrificing his career, and most likely his freedom, to save his pal from Keitel’s army of crooked cops.
All in all, while not a big hit for Sly, Cop Land is one of his movies that will always stand the test of time. It gets better the more you watch it, and for me – it’s one of my fave sly movies, which is why I give it a 9/10. But, as explained earlier, things were about to get a lot darker for Sly before dawn would break and the Italian Stallion would be triumphant once more.
Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/cop-land-is-this-sylvester-stallones-best-performance/