Friday, November 23, 2012

Cop Land

My college screenwriting professor once used Rocky as an example of how to write a likeable protagonist and illustrate his/her goals and what he/she does to accomplish them. After the lesson, he said the only way to make Rocky better would have been for Sylvester Stallone to have died in a tragic car accident after making it, so he could have been remembered as the next Orson Welles instead of a roided-up meathead fighting robots from Russia (my professor admitted he stopped following the Rocky series once they had Rocky win the re-match with Apollo). 

Stallone spent a better part of the 80s and 90s appearing in a lot standard action fair and blockbuster franchises, but it was Cop Land (1997) that saw him successfully return to more serious, dramatic acting. Instead of a toned and chiseled Rambo, Stallone plays Freddy Heflin, the sheriff of a small New Jersey town just across the river from New York City. Like Rocky Balboa, Freddy is an underdog; he always wanted to be a big-city cop, but an accident in his youth left him deaf in one ear. Now middle-aged and big around the waist, he can only stare longingly across the river and hero-worship the New York police officers who have made their home in his town.

Things get dicey after the nephew of a well-connected New York, Ray (Harvey Keitel), shoots a pair of black youths on a bridge and then seemingly jumps to his death into the river. Another officer (Robert Patrick) attempts to plant a gun on the dead youths, but he's seen by one of the paramedics doing so. An Internal Affairs officer, Moe Tilden (Robert De Niro), arrives to investigate the affair, and he wants Freddy to assist him, but Ray is the one who helped Freddy get a job in law enforcement.

That is the plot at its most fundamental level. There's also the woman (Annabella Sciorra) that Freddy loves. She is the person he saved from drowning all those years ago in the incident that cost him his hearing, but she's married to another New York cop (Peter Berg), and that cop is in turn having an affair with Ray's wife (Cathy Moriarty). Another cop's (Ray Liotta) house mysteriously burns down, killing his girlfriend in the process, and he seems to have a cocaine problem. There's also some important background relating to both the mafia and the New York police union. 

Cop Land's central problem is how it tries to tie everything together in under two hours, and as result, some of these plot threads feel shortchanged. It's a lot to keep track of, and some of the details get jumbled at times. Tilden disappointingly only has a few big scenes while Moriarty's character, who has this interesting ambiguity about what she might know and how she puts up with her husband, has very little screen time. Janeane Garofolo shows up as sheriff's deputy, professional, by the books, and is put off when Freddy allows Ray and a cohort to get away with speeding, but at the end, when he resolves to seriously investigate, out of the blue she announces she wants a transfer and "doesn't want any part of this." This also leads to the movie's great miscalculation in how it resolves everything. At the end, the standard action movie shootout takes place, all the right people are dead or arrested, and TV news narration ties up everything in a neat little bow. For a movie with so much intrigue and complexity leading up to the climax, it's a disappointingly straightforward ending.

What works for the movie are its performances. Stallone, for most of the movie, swallows his action-hero pride and effectively plays this downtrodden, naive wannabe who means well but isn't as bright or as skilled as he would like to be. The arc of this character - his gradual realization of the corruption right from him and his longing for Sciorra's character - make up the heart of the movie, but the best performance belongs to Keitel. Affectionately known as "Uncle Ray," he plays a great two-faced character, seemingly benevolent but hiding anger and calculation; if he likes you, he'll calmly explain why you have him all wrong. and you'll believe him. If you get on his bad side or no longer suit his purposes, he'll give you a severe tongue lashing and have you silenced. Also very good are De Niro and Liotta playing characters whose agendas and loyalties you're not entirely sure of.

Cop Land either needs to be longer to flesh out the ancillary characters or it needs to be shorter to keep focus squarely on Freddy and Ray. I would go with longer. There's so much complexity and intrigue, and the characters are so interesting, I wanted more of them. It's not all it could have been, but through the strength of its performances, Cop Land a solid recommendation.

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