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Sylvester Stallone Plays A Role Worthy Of His Talents in Cop Land

By Stacey Richter

AUGUST 25, 1997:  BECAUSE WE GO to the movies, we all know that there are good cops and bad cops. Good cops fight for law and order, even if their methods are a little suspect. They might have to blow some people away, but these people will have been vile. Bad cops are partisans of corruption and blow people away for profit, or kicks. Cop Land is about good cops fighting bad cops; true to its name, nearly every character in Cop Land is a cop, except for one, who's a cop's wife.

It's no surprise to find that Cop Land is predictable, since we've all seen so many movies and TV shows about the boys in blue. What's different and interesting about Cop Land is writer/director James Mangold's devotion to characters who are utter losers. His last film, Heavy, was a moving, low-budget story of a middle-aged, overweight pizza cook--he lives with his mom--who falls in love with a beautiful young girl. The cook never gets the girl, never loses weight, his life never shapes up.

Cop Land is about Freddy Heflin (Sylvester Stallone), a slow-witted, amiable sheriff. After losing hearing in one ear while rescuing a "beauty queen" from a capsized car, he's devastated to find he can never realize his dream of joining the NYPD.

Freddy's a loser, there's no way around it. As the sheriff of Garrison, a small town in Jersey across the river from Manhattan, his hazardous duties involve breaking up fights among school kids and chasing down speeders. Garrison happens to be populated by a precinct-full of New York City cops who've moved there to have a nice, safe place to raise their families. When it seems that some of the New York cops might be involved in an elaborate scheme of graft and corruption involving--surprise!--organized crime, Sheriff Heflin is called upon to apply himself to some real law enforcement.

In any "regular" Hollywood movie, Sheriff Heflin, after being ritually humiliated by the New York cops, would get himself together and fight back, using the only tools at his disposal: his brain, the good will of the citizens of Garrison, and his plucky deputies. In fact, nothing of the sort happens. Mangold is determined that Heflin should remain a loser. "You gotta move on the diagonal," his buddy Figgsy (Ray Liotta), a city cop, keeps explaining, trying to teach Heflin a little investigative finesse. It never sinks in. He keeps hulking along in straight lines. As it turns out, Heflin is not the brightest bulb in the hardware store.

The sheriff ends up barreling through using the only strength he has, which, for lack of a better name, I guess we'll call courage. Heflin's acts of heroism, when they come, are the acts of a regular guy--a couch potato without imagination--which is an intriguing thing to see in a movie.

Unfortunately, the rest of Cop Land is sort of flat. There are a lot of famous actors in it, mostly reprising bits from their previous roles as cops or mobsters. Harvey Keitel gives a performance redolent of LT in Bad Lieutenant; DeNiro mixes a bit of Harry Tuttle from Brazil with any of his later roles. People may be telling you that Stallone is great in this movie, but he's just as addled, slow and dog-like in his devotion here as he was in Rocky. In truth, Stallone is a hangdog-looking middle-aged guy. For this movie he gained a gut and affected a gallumping walk. He's finally playing a role he's suited for, and I'm not sure he deserves excessive congratulations for it. Stallone isn't great in Cop Land; he's OK. It's just that no one would expect him to accept a role in which he's stripped of all glamour.

Maybe partially because of all the big-name actors, some in rather small roles, Cop Land seems truncated. I had a sense that this was a much longer project that was cut down to a more commercial length. The characters don't get a chance to linger or grow; they just do their part, spout off a little exposition, then fade out. Perhaps the reason Keitel and DeNiro's performances seemed so canned is because they just didn't have the screen time in which to foster originality. It hardly seems possible that Stallone is a better actor than Harvey Keitel; he just has a lot more to do in this movie.

Cop Land is playing at El Dorado (745-6241) and Century Park 16 (620-0750) cinemas.

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