Looking back on Cop Land, James Mangold’s breakout 1997 police drama that helped fortify the Miramax stronghold on independent cinema throughout the decade, what’s most striking is the cast. It’s incredible. These faces and these bodies, ones of movie stars at different points in their career, seem to have gone back in time and lived as these characters for decades before we see them crash into each other in Mangold’s story. It lends even more authenticity to a near-perfect thriller that has truth and conviction in its bones.
James Mangold couldn’t have assembled the cast he did without selling his screenplay to Harvey and Bob Weinstein. The brash brothers from Buffalo, New York had transformed Miramax Films into the newest kings of tinseltown, thanks to the culture-shifting success of Pulp Fiction. Just about every young star – and a number of fading legends – were eager to find their Pulp Fiction and propel or resurrect their career, so when the Weinstein’s showed up with Mangold’s Cop Land, the producer was able to convince the majority of the impressive cast – Robert Patrick, Ray Liotta, Annabella Sciorra, Cathy Moriarty, Peter Berg, De Niro, Keitel, the list goes on – to work for scale.
The one holdout on that front was John Travolta, whom Harvey wanted to bring back this time to play the hero of the picture, Freddy Heflin, the downtrodden doormat sheriff of a city full of cops, deaf in one in because of an ear injury that kept him out of the NYPD. A lifetime of regret hangs heavy on Heflin. Weinstein argued that Travolta owed him for the windfall of Pulp Fiction, but Travolta felt he may have had something to do with the success of the movie, and he wasn’t so willing to reduce his asking price right in the middle of his new hot streak. Travolta didn’t fit in the mold of Cop Land anyway; he’d become a star again, and was too big a personality for this intimate drama. Mangold and Miramax needed to find someone on the downslope, the way Travolta was before 1994. Sylvester Stallone fit that description.
In 1993, Sly Stallone had a pair of solid hits – and two terrific films to boot – in Cliffhanger and the gleefully insane Demolition Man. Since that magical year, the well had run dry for the now aging ’80s icon: The Specialist, Judge Dredd, Assassins, and Daylight were four consecutive bombs, so Stallone was all too willing to roll the dice and take the part for a minimal fee. It was a return to Stallone’s roots as a performer, as he added forty pounds to his petite muscular frame and tackled the most crucial performance in an imposing ensemble of actors, all with “bigger” moments than Freddy throughout the film. Stallone could not be more perfect in a role that was advertised at the time as his indie throwback attempt at “real acting” again. His Freddy Heflin begins in the pool hall of Garrison, NJ, drunk and virtually mute, and must slowly stir his soul awake and pull himself out of the fog as the story begins to evolve and sprawl out of control. Stallone does wonderful physical work as Freddy slowly wakes up to the evil all around him, and his dull eyes are shining and clear by the time he decides to stand up for himself, and for the honor of the badge he’s wearing – even if it isn’t that shining tin star of the NYPD.
The fact that Stallone is able to hold the screen against the likes of Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, and the manic energy of Ray Liotta and a mustachioed Robert Patrick, speaks volumes to his performance. Both Keitel and De Niro are right at home as opposing powers facing off over an investigation into the sudden disappearance of Murray “Wonder Kid” Babbitch (Michael Rapaport), who shoots an unarmed black man one night and promptly vanishes into thin air. The rest of these actors all inhabit different variations of the beaten down, alcoholic drecks that many of these hard-nosed policemen morph into over years of working the beat, and Cathy Moriarty and Annabella Sciorra admirably fill the thankless, hapless roles of the wives in the background, themselves hapless and minimized by the toxic world all around them.
Mangold executes the labyrinthine plot and emotional beats of Cop Land like a seasoned veteran, with an inspirational touch of Sidney Lumet or Clint Eastwood in his directing prime. The film is patient and intimate, but still manages to hit big action notes and ratchet up the tension at just the right times. I have always admired Cop Land since seeing it in the theater, but the deliberate pacing and distinct lack of visual flourish, which befell so many Pulp Fiction copycats in the back half of the decade, has allowed the film to appreciate on its own humanistic merit. It’s the performances that grow stronger throughout the years, first and foremost, as we look back on this roster of talent and see just how great it turned out to be.