“Cop Land” – 1997. Dir. James Mangold

With Sylvester Stallone, Harvey Keitel, Robert DeNiro, Robert Patrick, Annabella Sciorra, Noah Emmerich, Frank Vincent, Arthur J. Nascarella, Peter Berg, Cathy Moriarty, Michael Rapaport, Edie Falco with John Spencer and Ray Liotta

“Don’t shut me out Ray! You found us a sweet little town. You got us the low interest, and I’m grateful. But don’t forget who it was that you came to two years ago to cover your ass!” – Figgs (Ray Liotta)

The film “Cop Land” has a simple template – it’s a town of Garrison, New Jersey that is forty minutes from New York City – where all the towns’ folk work as police officers. The patriarch of the town, Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel) is the supreme power that rules the town. The small town has its own “law” and it’s enforced by native Freddy Heflin (an overweight and bloated Sylvester Stallone) who is a bumbling and slightly dim witted law man whose dream was to be one of New York’s finest. Sheriff Heflin has limited control, and the only power he has is the power Ray Donlan lets him have.

Inside of the town is Ray’s right hand man Jack Rucker (Robert Patrick) who is a man that has a primal urge of violence and destruction who goes head on with Ray’s old partner Gary Figgis (Ray Liotta who puts on a clinic). This is an extremely close nit and private community where everyone’s doors are unlocked and no one lives in fear, the only semi outcast is Figgs who now has a drug problem.

After an incident with Ray’s nephew Murray “Super Boy” Babich (Michael Rapaport) where Murray shot and killed two black teenagers while driving drunk and suspecting the two black men were pointing a gun at him, Ray and Leo Crasky (John Spencer) and some other “higher ups” of the community decide it best to fake Murray jumping off the George Washington Bridge in hopes it would prevent any unwanted investigation to their town of Garrison, New Jersey.

An old academy classmate of Ray’s Moe Tildon (Robert DeNiro) now works for internal affairs, and knows that Ray is dirty, knows that he’s been doing favors for the mob and in turn the mob banks offered low interest rates on home loans to the fleet of officers that could all buy homes outside of the violence and mayhem of New York.

I have seen “Cop Land” over twenty times in my life, and when I watch the film I see two things – I see a modern day western that follows the path of “High Noon” where a Sheriff takes his town back from corruption. Then I look closer and I see a film that brings morals and values into a heated debate. I ask myself while watching this film, if Ray Donlan is as bad as we’re supposed to think he is. Sure he may have done some bad things – we see him do some bad things – but everything he does isn’t for his own personal gain, it’s to protect this “utopian” community where police don’t have to live in fear.

They see so many horrors and unthinkable things as police officers in New York City – that when they come home to Garrison, they don’t have to worry about them, they don’t have to worry about locking their doors or sleeping with a gun under their pillows. They know that once they cross the bridge and enter their town that they are safe from the outside world. What these men have done is cut a couple of corners, do a couple of favors for bad people to insure the protection of their families.

We know from the start that Ray, Jack and Figgs aren’t the cleanest of cops, but by getting their hands dirty, they were able to protect fellow cops. And being put in the same situation, I feel that I would do the same. I mean, how far would you go to protect and provide for your friends and their families?

James Mangold (“Walk the Line”, “Girl Interrupted” and “3:10 to Yuma”) masterfully writes and directs a film that is a masterpiece. The dialogue is rich and filled with excellent exchanges between characters. It is a remarkable screenplay, and it’s that screenplay that allowed Mangold to direct his first film, and to get the attention of Stallone, DeNiro, Keitel and Liotta – who all worked for the SAG minimum salary to insure that the film would get made and not go over budget.

Aside from the star power of the top billed actors, Mangold fills the film with remarkable character actors to help support a great foundation that the screenplay and star power started to build. John Spencer who plays a character that almost seems like the one person that Ray reports too, and Robert Patrick is magnificent as Ray’s right hand man who in a split second would jump in front of a bullet for Ray. Arthur J. Nascarella was originally a technical advisor for the film since he was an NYPD officer for twenty years, but Mangold then wrote a part for him as one of Ray’s men.

The four leads give impeccable performances. Stallone gives the performance of his career, he touches upon emotions and traits that his characters aren’t usually identified with. He struggles with loneliness and apathy – and Stallone shows an awesome amount of range. I’m still bitter about him not getting a nomination. Stallone took this role so seriously he stopped working out, and gained sixty pounds of fat, which brought so much authenticity to Freddy that when I see Stallone in the film, I don’t see Rambo or Rocky – I see dim witted Freddy.

Harvey Keitel and Robert DeNiro are such seasoned actors that it’s easy for them to take roles that they can just walk through (DeNiro has been doing that since “Jackie Brown”). It’s wonderful to see them onscreen again, playing bitter rivals who hate the other one so much it makes the audience uncomfortable watching them on screen together. I mean, this is the first time the two have been on screen together since “Taxi Driver” – it’s been long overdue!

Now if I had to say that one actor steals the show, it would have to be Ray Liotta. Liotta plays his much typecast “man on the edge”, but in this film that is exactly what his character is. Liotta makes decisions in the film that leave him with much guilt. Liotta plays a modern day ronin – a samurai that has no guidance from a master and has now lost his way.

The finale of the film is as epic as epic gets with an old fashion showdown between the Sheriff and Ray and his men. It’s a showdown that has the good old shoot out finale that my friend Kevin over at The Pork Chop Express stated in his “Dark Blue” review that every cop film needs. I can abide by that.

Earlier in the review I stated that this film is a masterpiece. I do feel that the film is a masterpiece; while watching this film, there isn’t one thing that I have a hang up with, nor is there anything that makes the film not feel authentic. This film fires on all its cylinders throughout and doesn’t have any lulls or a snag from DeNiro’s opening narration to his closing narration.

While the moral conflicts the characters have in the film may not be the main focus of the average viewer watching the film; it does for me. By no means is this a landmark film or bring into light taboo subjects – but what it offers is an excellent acting ensemble, a finely tuned script, and remarkable storytelling by James Mangold.

Rating: 10/10

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Author: Frank Mengarelli

Everybody relax, Frank's here. After going to film school at Columbia College Chicago, Frank decided to underachieve with his vast knowledge of film into a career in civil service. Frank had a brief stint as a film blogger, and then he met the heterosexual love of his life, Nick Clement. The two instantly bonded over their love from everything to Terence Malick to THE EXPENDABLES films. Some of Frank's favorite filmmakers are Terence Malick, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Sylvester Stallone, Oliver Stone and Spike Lee. Some of his favorite films are THE TREE OF LIFE, STAR WARS (all of them), BAD LIEUTENANT, THE THING and ALL THAT JAZZ. Frank spends his free time with his dog Roger, collecting any Star Wars collectible he can find and trying to finish his pretentious, first person narrative novel(la), LARGE MEN IN SMALL CARS..

6 thoughts on ““Cop Land” – 1997. Dir. James Mangold”

  1. I’m glad you touched on the moral greys of the film. It’s easy to judge DeNiro and Keitel’s characters, but at the end of the day do you want to live in a dangerous neighborhood?

  2. Wow, a 10! I’ll have to see this again, as I saw it as a teen upon release and thought it was boring. I love the cast so there’s no reason I shouldn’t like it if it’s as well done as you state. I’m not a Mangold fan though, so I’ll still go in with tempered expectations.

    1. I used to be a HUGE Mangold fan. I loved “Walk the Line” and “3:10 to Yuma”, but after a while those films really ran their course with me, but with “Cop Land” there isn’t one thing that I don’t like about it. I really do love everything about the film. Give it another shot, and let me know what you think.

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