Friday, June 14, 2013

Film Friday: Cop Land (1997)

Imagine a film staring Sylvester Stallone, Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Robert Patrick and a dozen more people you’ll recognize. Now imagine if the thing is really well written. Yet, few people know about it. That’s Cop Land, and this is truly an excellent film.

** Major Spoiler Alert **
Across the Hudson River from New York City lies Garrison, New Jersey. This is a town populated by NYPD cops who found a way around the NYC residency requirement. As the story open, one of these cops (Murray “Superboy” Babitch) kills two thugs on the George Washington Bridge. To save him from arrest, and from questioning by Internal Affairs, a group of these Garrison cops, including Superboy’s uncle Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel), try to cover this up. In the process, Superboy jumps off the bridge.
This begins a chain of events that slowly spin out of control. And as Ray tries to solve the problem created by Superboy, Internal Affairs is watching in the form of Lt. Moe Tilden (De Niro). Stuck in the middle of all of this is the local Sheriff (Stallone), through whose eyes we see the story.
Why This Film Works
Cop Land holds your attention throughout and pulls you into its world by constantly throwing the unexpected at you. Indeed, the main story keeps twisting as the plot evolves in unexpected ways at each turn. What starts as the story of a guy jumping off a bridge quickly turns into a battle with Internal Affairs as the plot digs deeper. Did he really jump? Is the mob involved in all of this? Who is a good guy and who isn’t? Why won’t Ray look at the picture of a murdered cop? Who tried to kill Figgsy (Ray Liotta) or did anyone? What is Stallone going to do as things get worse and worse all around him? Almost every scene adds some new piece to the puzzle and moves the plot in a different direction. The end result is a story that simply cannot be predicted and which builds tension moment by moment as you approach the ending. . . which is itself unique.

Adding to this are some surprises in the characters. I’ve said several times in the past that one of the best ways to give your audience something unexpected is to take a cliché and twist it. Another good way is to play your characters or actors against type. Cop Land does this extremely well.
One of the early scenes in the movie demonstrates this perfectly. We all know that Stallone is a hero. He’s always a principled hero who stops misconduct no matter where he sees it and no matter what the consequences, right? Well, early in the film, we see Stallone and his deputy pull over Ray for speeding. Ray is abusive to the deputy. So naturally, we expect Stallone to put an end to this and to slap Ray down. Only, he doesn’t. He doesn’t because this Stallone is useless and pathetic. He’s stupid and cowardly and easily pushed around. Indeed, the other cops constantly push him around and even mock him as “not a real cop.” Stallone is even too pathetic to pursue the woman he obsesses over, and in a very un-hero-like moment, he tells us that he wouldn’t repeat his sole act of heroism today if he had to do it all over again. Stallone even put on forty pounds of fat to look less effective in this role. And the result is that you simply can’t predict what he will do. There are several plot points where you know what the hero Stallone always plays would do, but you have no clue what Sheriff Freddy Heflin will do.

Or consider Robert De Niro who always plays the most street smart guy in the room. This time, he plays a guy with no power to solve the problem he faces. He’s not the tough guy with the heart of gold either, he’s just an Internal Affairs cop with a problem he can’t solve.
Even a character like Ray, which Harvey Keitel plays to form, shifts enough throughout the film that he remains a constant surprise. At first, he seems like a good cop who wants to protect his friends. But that fades little by little as you learn about his connection to the mob and the people he’s killed. By the time you see him let a cop die to settle a score over an affair, he’s become something you never would have expected when you first meet him, but which you can absolutely see in hindsight. That’s excellent writing and solid acting, especially as Keitel never changes the way he portrays the character as his character seems to change.

Beyond the surprises, the film is also extremely well-written. The dialog is strong. It doesn’t give away anything too quickly, but it doesn’t hide anything either – this actually makes the film highly re-watchable because the meanings of the characters change once you know their true motivations. The characters’ actions make sense in the real world too. There are no phony film moments here. The film is also full of the kinds of touches that make films like this feel worthwhile, like teaching you new things about being a cop, such as the diagonal rule and that “it’s just as easy to tail a man walking in front of him.”
Lastly, the film does a great job of making the characters complex by giving each multiple motives for their actions. For example, does Ray save Superboy because he’s a relative and wants to help him? Or does he save Superboy just to keep Internal Affairs from getting him? He must have known what would need to happen with Superboy eventually. Does Ray let Randone die because he’s become a problem in the Superboy affair or because he knows about the affair with his wife? Is Stallone finally doing something because he’s a wants to do the right thing or because he hopes to prove his own worth to himself or does he want to prove himself to Liz? Is Figgsy helping Stallone to help him or to use him against Ray. . . to come at Ray sideways? And so on. Almost every action taken in this film can be interpreted in one of two ways.

This movie is not an easy movie for general audiences. It takes its time to explain everything that is going on and to work you into the plot. It relies on you to remember what you’ve seen. It relies on context more than exposition. (Surprise, surprise, Ebert gave it 2 stars.) It also twists expectations in ways that will feel disconcerting to those expecting to see the same thing they’ve seen over and over. You will not, for example, see Judge Dredd or Rambo make an appearance. But that is what ultimately makes this film shine: you’ve never seen this story before and you can’t guess the twists and turns before they happen. Combine that with solid dialog and strong acting and you get an excellent, gripping film.

Finally, as an aside, while both De Niro and Keitel are strong actors in this film, Stallone is the real gem here. This was the first film where I really felt like Stallone proved he could act.


Tennessee Jed said...

this was an excellent under the radar film which I enjoyed immensely. I think I saw it twice, but it has been awhile, so I appreciate your bringing back to my attention. Definitely it is worthwhile.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, It was under the radar and I don't know how, given the cast. In any event, I was really blown away by how well Stallone did and how totally unexpected his character was. And the film was really enjoyable. It's one of those where you find yourself paying more and more attention as the film progresses and that's always a good sign.

Anonymous said...


Great review of the really great and unappreciated movie. I remember when this movie came out, it got some press but it wasn't pushed and it didn't seem to hit with the audience so I didn't see it until it came out on DVD.

And when I did see it, it became one of my favourite films or the time, I recommended it to friends that liked good movies. As you say it is really re-watchable, I've seen it about four times but it's been too long so I might have to watch it again.

From what I can remember, the biggest thing mentioned about this movie when it came out was the weight that Stallone put on for the role and not the great acting (by a really stellar cast), the great writing or directing. Which is a shame as this movie should be seen by a lot more people.


tryanmax said...

I'll take your recommendation and run with it. I never saw this film just because the title put me off.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I think they had a limited advertising budget for one thing. All the actors worked for scale, so it sounds like this wasn't a "studio project." And you're right, the talk was about Stallone adding 40 pounds and not how great he did in the role.

It's too bad this film hasn't gotten more recognition because it's one of those that everyone I know who has seen it has really liked.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Excellent! You won't be disappointed.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this!
Copland is one of my very favorites.It was so poorly received critically that when I saw it was today's film I thought "Here we go again." You know how it is to read somebody rip a film that you love. You go through and mentally counter each point they make against it.It's great to find somebody who saw the same things in it that I did.
Stallone has been one of my favorite actors since I saw Rocky II when I was 14 years old.He went to the top of the box office but then he got stuck in a rut and it seemed like it was over.Copland was his comeback. He had to act.He couldn't rely on muscles or guns or explosions.He had to act and he came through.Stallone,the critics whipping boy,stood up and held his own with the critical darlings Ray Liotta,Robert DeNiro and Harvey Keitel. If any of those four hadn't pulled his weight the film would have collapsed,but they all did and it didn't.This is a movie that,while it had stars,didn't rely on star power. None of the four leads dominated the other 3.In fact,this would have worked just as well if it had been exactly the same but none of the 4 main actors were famous.(Spoilers to come)
You were right about DeNiro. There's a scene where he's cruel to Stallone,but then you see that he did it deliberately to get Stallone to kick up his case again.And it had things you like in a movie,like the way Liotta,free and clear,couldn't abandon Stallone.The bar fight between Liotta and Robert Patrick was original.
Copland was a well written, well acted,well thought out film that was extremely satisfying and holds up.

AndrewPrice said...

GypsyTyger, You're welcome! :)

I agree completely. This is a film that none of the four main actors dominate and all four needed to hold their own for this to work -- and they all did. Each one is absolutely believable and each one fits their role perfectly -- you never once think "oh, that's Harvey Keitel playing himself."

The film is also packed with unique moments. Like the bar fight and especially the ending. The ending is great because it's not what you expect for this kind of film. You keeping waiting for a Rambo-like moment and you don't really get that -- not to mention, there are several times where you think, "Ok, Stallone is going to go kick butt now" and then he doesn't. It's very nicely done.

It's interesting too to me that the lines you remember from the film aren't deep philosophical lines or one liners, but are "character lines" like "You think I'm all that?" from Ray or "I am a cop" from Stallone to De Niro. Those aren't the lines you normally remember from a film, but you do here.

I agree too about the nice moments like Liotta coming back. The film is all about loyalty and what happens when your loyalties conflict. And it's interesting how each of them struggles with how to remain loyal even as they can't. That creates a heck of a series of motivations.

On the critics, by the way, I'm seeing a pattern with Roger Ebert (and the others) that he/they really lacks the ability to grasp films that aren't heavy on exposition. So it's natural that he would find a film like this to be difficult because it doesn't come right out and tell you, "Here is what is happening." It's an interesting pattern I've noticed that seems to be holding true time and again, and that's why this film got hit by the critics.

K said...

Thanks Andrew, I've been meaning to see this film, now I will - (it's on Netflix, yay!).

AndrewPrice said...

You're welcome, K! I think you'll enjoy it. :)

BevfromNYC said...

Hey, you see that paunch on Stallone in the first photo? I made that! Really, I made the "fat suit" that he is wearing under his uniform. You can now bask in the awesomeness that is me...;-P

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, Did you really? Did you get to meet him?

BevfromNYC said...

Yes, I really did make it. And, no, I didn't get to meet Stallone. It isn't the type of "garment" that required any real fittings. The wardrobe people just sent over his measurements. That's when I found out he was only 5'8", not that there is anything wrong with that.

AndrewPrice said...


I've always heard he's short.

K said...

I had no idea Bev was in show business. I think that makes her a Commentalebrity.

tryanmax said...

Bev, will you sign my fat suit? Oh wait... This isn't a suit!

Voz said...

I rented this movie several years ago and thought it was great then and haven't seen it since...I've always had a desire to go back and see it again. I picked it up at the now defunct Hollywood Video on a whim one day and was rather pleased that I had.

AndrewPrice said...

Voz, I expected just a generic cop film with Stallone as the hero and I was very pleasantly surprised to find anything but a generic film. I liked everything about the film. And it definitely holds up to repeated viewings.

Koshcat said...

It has been awhile since I saw it but I really liked this film. Your review is so good I have really nothing to add except to use up electron space.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, LOL! Feel free to use as many electrons as you like. We are nowhere near "peak electron" yet. :)

Glad you liked it. :) I definitely encourage everyone to see this film. It's a shame it slipped between the cracks.

Patriot said...

Haven't seen this...or really even heard about it, but I'm not a film geek like most folks here at Commentarama. But now I can say I read celebrity gossip....thanks Bev!!

Andrew....the film is now on the official Patriot list of films to watch on evenings when I'm not paying $14.99 for the latest b'buster on Amazon Prime!

I wish there was a way to burn a film to disc that you just "bought" off these pay sites. I still like the act of being the movie player in the film projection room like I did years ago when the little Patriot's were all together and not scattered around the globe.

Very perceptive review always!

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Patriot, I think you'll like this one.

I know what you mean about the downloads. I prefer the discs for that reason.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to respond back so late,I've been tied up with painting and yard work. First things first- Bev,way cool!
Andrew,"This film relies more on context than exposition." Absolutely. I've been thinking about how the bar fight is used to show the relationships between the characters.Ebert et al probably just saw a bar fight. Let's take a look at it,though.
The subject of Liotta's girlfriend comes up. Robert Patrick says "At least I ain't shacked up with no 'Rican whore. You're just supposed to f__k 'em Gary,not open up a methadone clinic." Ordinarily the next shot would be of Liotta,the man who had just been insulted.But the next shot is of Keitel.And Keitel doesn't look at Patrick,who made the vulgar remark,he looks at Liotta.Keitel knows that Liotta isn't going to take that,because they have a history together.You have to watch though.The movie never stops and explains their history. The viewer has to pick it up.The scene then shifts to Liotta,who I've always considered an underrated actor.He doesn't overact.You see the anger build in him as he absorbs the insult,it goes through his jaws and his eyes and then he hits Patrick. As Patrick realizes that what he thought was just going to be a smartass remark and a smirk is evolving into a trip to the dentist he goes for his gun. Liotta keeps him from getting it,but not because he responds to it,because he anticipated that Patrick's character would pull his gun,even in this intramural fight with another cop.These guys know each other.But you have to watch and pay attention to realize it.

Anonymous said...

Another thing that worked very well was Stallone's status as an outsider.
Freddy Heflin was an outsider,the town sheriff who couldn't get on the NYPD.Keitel,Liotta and DeNiro all played NYPD cops.Well in real life Stallone was an outsider.DeNiro and Keitel had worked together in Mean Streets and Taxi Driver.DeNiro and Liotta had worked together in Goodfellas.All three men had worked for Scorcese.Stallone hadn't done any of that.Those three actors off camera had shared experiences that Sylvester Stallone didn't have. Freddy Heflin really came across as an outsider and so did Stallone.You mentioned the great character driven lines.At one point Keitel makes some crack about DeNiro,and DeNiro just blows on his coffee and says "Is that how it happened?" Just a quiet little exchange,but so much menace,not seen,but insinuated by the faces and eyes of DeNiro and Kietel.
You pointed out that Cop Land is about loyalty and you're right.But it's also about idealism.Moe Tilden,however tired and world weary he may be,is the enforcer of ideals as the Internal Affairs Lt.Ray has abandoned his ideals altogether. Gary Figgers is struggling with how to hold on to his.Freddy Heflin over idealizes the New York cops. Loyalty is Idealism's younger brother.
And lastly,Patrick is used in another pivotal scene.When he tells Stallone that he should be investigating Liotta's character about the fire,Stallone says "Where were you that night?" At the beginning of the movie Stallone wouldn't have responded that way.Patrick's character is used to show how Stallone's character is starting to sand up to the cops who previously overlooked him. This is an important step on the way to the decision Stallne makes that sets up the climax of the film,but it's easy to overlook at the time.

AndrewPrice said...

GypsyTyger, I agree on all points.

On the bar fight, think about how much information gets passed that never gets laid out for the audience through exposition:

1. "you don't open a methadone clinic." This line means that Liotta's girlfriend is a heroine addict. Yet, we're never told that specifically -- you have to reason it through to get the meaning. Why is that important? Well, (1) it tells us that Liotta loves her, even though that is never said -- otherwise, why would he put up with a drug addict. That means his grief is genuine. (2) It also explains why she dies. She dies because she comes home unexpectedly. Why did she do that? I can almost hear Ebert say, "They never tell us." But they did. She said "I needed some." If you don't realize that she's a drug addict, then this makes no sense. But if you do realize it, then it makes total sense and it also explains why she would be unpredictable, which explains why Liotta is so shocked when she's caught in the blast.

2. "It's not my fault you can't look at him!" Think about that line. It's totally unexplained until Freddy steals the file that tells us what happened to Tully. Yet, it's enough to let you know both that there is something really creepy inside Ray (and that's the first time you see rage inside him... "get him out of here!") and that the insiders all know what happened. That explains why the older guys aren't the least bit shocked when Ray says they need to kill Superboy. And keep in mind, Ray never actually says that they need to kill Superboy either... it's just implied.

3. "Don't shut me out Ray!" What does this mean? It means that Figgsy is on the inside, but that there is tension with Ray. It means that things have reached a boiling point. It raises the possibility that one or the other will need to get rid of the other -- which precedes the fire and which precedes Figgsy pushing Freddy to "come sideways" at Ray. I think it's a very fair read that Figgsy used Freddy as a weapon against Ray...

.... now ask yourself this. When Figgsy comes back at the end, does he come back because he feels bad for Freddy or to make sure that Ray dies? I think it's a little of both. Watch him turn the gun on Ray and I think you get a sense that Ray was his target all along -- he was going to kill Ray no matter what.

4. "I'll take care of it." That statement shows both that Freddy is a lapdog AND it comes across as so naive. It shows that Freddy doesn't have a clue what is going on yet he suggests he can fix things just by hanging out with Figgsy. That's another strong character moment that gets reinforced later with "your plan is the plan of a boy." It shows Freddy to be childish and naive.

Then you add the moment you raise about "where were you when the fire happened" and you do see a real change in Freddy. But again, you don't have another character say, "Gee, Freddy certainly has changed and he is now more heroic." You just have to understand that this was the first time in the film Freddy stood up to ANYONE and that it meant that things had changed.

I think this thing is so brilliantly written.

Voz said...

Just rewatched this and after reading your insights into the film, I enjoyed it even more so this time...the climactic sequence was done beautifully with the muffled sounds and Stallone's line of "I can't hear you Ray." He physically can't hear him but finally is able to ignore the nonsense that Ray has been feeding him for 10 years.

AndrewPrice said...

Voz, Glad to hear it! I'm always happy to hear that a review has helped someone enjoy a movie more. :)

I think the ending is fantastic. It's very disorienting and it's very different to see an incompetent Stallone basically getting lucky rather than controlling the situation. And then things like the gun jamming and he doesn't seem to know how to clear it are pretty unique on film as well. It all makes for a very unexpected and tense ending.

And you're right, that line had a great double meaning. It's one of those lines that says so much once you stop to think about it.

K said...

Loved the movie. Thanks Andrew.

While you're cataloging good story telling technique, the bomb squad girl idea impressed me. I hate it when some character isn't distinguished enough early and then turns up later and I don't know or can't remember who they are - thereby missing a story telling point. No problem even though she only showed up for 10 seconds - the tongue in the bag story did the trick. Nice.

Nitpick: Stallone underplayed his role a bit too much. Was this made during that short period when playing retarded people was a fast track to an oscar?

AndrewPrice said...

K, I'm glad you liked it! This is one of those forgotten films that I think deserves a lot more notice than it got.

Very good point about the tongue. One of the great things throughout this film is how they get you to remember key points. You absolutely remember the tongue story because it stands out as unique and it clearly identifies her as "bomb squad." It also has a feel of being the kind of story cops really tell, which gives the movie a solid "insider" feel and it keeps you from realizing that you're being told "hey, pay attention to this woman!" because it feels natural.

Another example that I really like is how Liotta knocks over the beer can when he's teaching Freddie how to get through town fast -- "A brother is down and he's bleeding." Bang, you see the beer flowing out and you instantly get the total visual. Moments like that populate this film and I see that as both excellent writing and excellent directing.

I think Stallone underplayed it because he wanted to be the exact opposite of characters like Judge Dredd and the cops he'd played. He wanted this character to really stand out by comparison and I think he does it.

That said, this may have been that period.

EricP said...

AP, thanks for the inspiration to finally buy a movie I've loved since seeing it in the theatre! Stallone should have at minimum been nominated for any awards that year, yet was relegated to only winning the Stockholm Film Fest Best Actor?!?! Miramax specializes in effective award-season campaigns, so guessing Sly really must have pissed in the Weinstein Bros. cornflakes. Maybe a fellow tinkle from writer/director James Mangold, who also tends to get overlooked far too often for how deftly he handles his casts. Can you imagine making this movie, with this overly lauded cast (except the criminally underappreciated Ray Liotta, who has to be the US' version of Gary Oldman for the times the Academy's ignored him), as your major studio debut? Mangold, you lucky bastard!!!

Added appreciation for making me want to pop in The Commitments, too.

AndrewPrice said...

Eric, You're welcome! Glad I inspired you! :D

Totally agree... could you imagine this being your first cast? That would be amazing. And he did so well with it too. It's too bad the critics weren't fair to it. This film really does deserve more.

On the awards, the only thing I can think of is that the critics didn't get the film and maybe they were pushing other films that year.

Good call on comparing Liotta to Oldman! Liotta isn't someone you think of when you think about films, but then you realize that he's been in so much and he's always been great.

Voz said...

I especially liked how it wasn't a formulaic cop movie...De Niro's character is Internal Affairs but he's not the bad guy...and speaking of Mangold, I liked 3:10 to Yuma and Knight and Day...neither of them are amazing movies but are consistent and not dumbed down from how I saw them. I usually think Liotta can seem to be overacting but he has been in a of his more memorable roles that stood out to me was Control with Willem Dafoe and Michelle Rodriguez...a very little known movie but a great movie.

EricP said...

Voz, if you haven't seen Dominick and Eugene, highly recommend it. Liotta and Tom Hulce doing some of their best work, and Ray's not in over-the-top mode. Still, that said, when you burst on to the big-screen seen as brilliantly and explosively as he did in Something Wild, I rarely want him any other way. Simmering to psycho, always worth watching. Well, except Corinna Corinna, but I won't digress ...

AndrewPrice said...

Voz, Definitely agree about this not being a formulaic cop movie. This is a rather unique plot all around and none of the characters are cliches.

Liotta can overact (which is why the comparison to Oldman above is so good), but it usually fits the role.

AndrewPrice said...

Eric, My favorite role of Liotta's is still Goodfellas and then this one.

Voz said...

You didn't like him in In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale? j/k
You should start a column on the terrible mess that is Uwe Boll and how he is only a lesson in what not to do when making a movie...

tryanmax said...

Thanks for the heads up on this. Very good. It had me fooled more than once, which I like. But I don't think that general audiences would much appreciate it.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, You're welcome. I ran into that too the first time, it definitely can fool you.

I agree that general audiences wouldn't like this. Its too hard, too ambiguous for them to follow. Which again, fits with the pattern I've seen where the critics actually think like general audiences even as they pretend to be erudite and learned and "subtle."

AndrewPrice said...

Voz, LOL! Yeah, he sucked in that... and who didn't? What a horrible movie. Good point about Boll. He's awful!

EricP said...

GoodFellas (how is everyone around the flippin' centerpiece, who carried the movie, nominated and he gets bupkus???? Pissed for life on this one), Something Wild, Cop Land, Dominick & Eugene, Narc. Not the biggest fan of Field of Dreams, but always worth skipping to Ray channeling his Henry Hill laugh/cackle after the "Ty Cobb wanted to play ... we told him to stick it!" line.

AndrewPrice said...

Eric, That's pretty amazing isn't it? He's the lead and everyone but him get an award! He must have a lot of enemies in Hollywood.

EricP said...

Ditto Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter. I'm certainly not comparing their talent levels (Wahlberg's entertaining at what he does, but he's no Liotta), but being a movie's anchor apparently not something to be lauded.

AndrewPrice said...

Eric, I like Wahlberg a good deal as well.

djskit said...

Just saw this on Netflix based on your recommendation. This is one of those times I read the first paragraph, stop, see the movie, then read the rest.

I totally missed the bombsquad gal connection earlier in the movie - another reason to re-watch.

Another character line - DeNiro: "That was two weeks had your chance to be a cop and you blew it!" At first he comes off like a indifferent, defeated, jerk (totally plausable)- at that point, you have no idea of where the plot is going next - then you realize, he was trying to stir the pot.

AndrewPrice said...

djskit, Definitely. This movie is full of things that you miss the first time and that gives it a high re-watchability.

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