Cop Land (1997)
Written & Directed by James Mangold
This weekend, as the country fell into turmoil via a much-needed insurrection, director James Mangold shared behind the scenes information on the making of his second feature film Cop Land. You can read that thread here, but the gist of it is that the Weinstein Brothers and Miramax were nervous about making a movie that had cops as the villains and highlighted the insular, corrupted nature of their organization. The script came from Mangold’s own childhood, growing up in Washingtonville, New York. The particular development Mangold lived in was the home to cops who found loopholes that would let them live outside of New York City. Because they were separated from the communities they patrolled, the police came to think of those residents as “other”, always sizing them up and assuming they were enemies.
Garrison, New Jersey is the home to numerous NYPD officers, the place they started to escape to when living the city became undesirable in the 1970s. They are watched over by Freddy Hefflin (Sylvester Stallone), the elected sheriff, whose dreams of being an officer in the city never came because he is deaf in one ear. It’s evident to him that the cops that live in his town are involved in deep levels of corruption, entangled with the mob & selling drugs lifted from the evidence lockers. Things change one night when young cop Murray Babitch (Michael Rappaport) gets side-swiped driving across the GW Bridge, and he mistakes one of them for holding a gun. He opens fire and murders both men.
Senior officers arrive on the scene, including Murray’s uncle Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel), who is the unofficial head of the community in Garrison. A weapon is planted, and schemes are hatched to spare Murray’s name. Internal Affairs investigator Moe Tilden (Robert DeNiro) has known for a long time that Ray is running things dirty across the river but has never had the evidence he needs to pin him down. Everything about this situation on the Bridge reeks of corruption, and this sends Tilden outside of his jurisdiction. He implores Freddy to help him gather evidence on these men and bring them to justice. Now Freddy has to decide how far he will go to enforce the law against the men who made him a sheriff.
Cop Land is a film that meets the definition of an all-star cast. In addition to the actors mentioned above, there are supporting roles played by Ray Liotta, Peter Berg, Janeane Garafalo, Robert Patrick, Annabella Sciorra, Cathy Moriarty, Edie Falco, Method Man, and more. The movie is good, but it does not pace well, leading to several lulls in the second act. I was upset that the picture wasn’t more tightly written because there’s so much potential here. That first act moves along so nicely, introducing characters and setting up situations, building the conflict. Then the middle of the picture comes along the story slows way down in comparison.
Having so many great actors in one move sets an expectation that I don’t think the picture can possibly live up to. There’s a love interest given to Freddy, subplots involving Ray’s wife cheating on him with another cop, the new deputy seeing how complicated things are in Garrison, and on and on. It’s just too much. I think a sleeker script that focused on two or three characters and really broke down their story and cross-conflicts could have been more powerful. That said, Cop Land is excellent, and when the elements mesh, they deliver a fantastic story about villains you don’t often see on the screen.
Mangold presents the cops of Garrison as a variation on the mob. They have uniforms and permission from the city of New York to carry guns and kill people with little transparency. I think it is essential to show that systems that rely on “brotherhoods” or “fraternities” of power are inherently going to turn out bad eventually. Even the “good cop” in the movie commits an act that unintentionally kills a loved one, which he tries to cover up. You simply cannot give such a limited group of people such immense power and expect that they won’t abuse it. The transparency that is supposed to come through Internal Affairs is continually stymied, which is shown in the frustration of Tilden in trying to eke out even a crumb of cooperation with Freddy.
Stallone is perfect as Freddy, playing such a different character than the general audience likely associate with him. There’s subtly to Freddy, he’s a big guy but not muscular slightly overweight. He’s not viewed as any threat by Ray and his crew, he’s a charity case they can rely on to do nothing. You can tell Mangold really wanted to explore more of the clash between these suburban residents and the black people they police, but he wasn’t able to. He’s able to add little pieces in, like when a black couple is passing through Garrison and get pulled over and ticketed by Freddy’s deputy. Ray Liotta’s Figgs is mocked by his coworkers for dating a Puerto Rican woman and letting her live in his house. The expectation from Ray is that Freddy keeps non-white people out of their city and that his exercising of the law stops there.
Cop Land is such a relevant film, and it is one of the better American pictures to come out in the late 1990s. Amazingly, Mangold was able to assemble all these people on screen together. He wasn’t quite as good at writing as he became later in films like Logan. There’s still so much here to love, and the themes being explored couldn’t be more relevant to our present situation.