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Sly Stallone co-stars with some Scorsese alums in a failed prestige picture

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: We recommend five days of action vehicles, each starring a different member of The Expendables.

Cop Land (1997)

Sylvester Stallone’s most recent of many career revivals has involved his reinvention as a geriatric action nostalgist, indulging in fantasy revivals and team-ups like Grudge Match and the Expendables series. One of his earlier comebacks took a more serious, less self-kidding route, dropping the actor into a bit of Weinstein-assisted, ostensible Oscar bait, 1997’s Cop Land. Nobody bit: The film got no awards attention and grossed little at the box office; Stallone was soon headlining action flops again. Nevertheless, the movie has aged better than many of the star’s more age-conscious image tweaks.


While Expendables rallies the ’80s-action troops (and a few younger counterparts), Cop Land places Stallone alongside a history of hotheaded Martin Scorsese leading men: Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, and Robert De Niro, all playing New York cops in one form or another. (Raging Bull’s Cathy Moriarty even turns up as a surly wife). This positions Stallone’s Freddy Heflin as an outsider. Freddy works as the sheriff of a small New Jersey town where a bunch of NYPD officers live, exploiting a transit-overtime loophole to reside outside of the city. Freddy yearns to join the NYPD but doesn’t meet the physical requirements—he’s deaf in one ear following a youthful act of heroism. The sheriff job is less demanding, as it mostly involves glad-handing the big-shot residents (led by Harvey Keitel) and making sure no one ever writes them speeding tickets. But when an altercation with two black teenagers ends with the apparent suicide of a hero policeman, an Internal Affairs investigator (De Niro) comes sniffing around the cop community, while another officer (Liotta) starts spilling his guts to Freddy.

That’s the basic plot of Cop Land, and there’s plenty more, but writer-director James Mangold revels in the character-study details. Stallone put on weight for the role, ambling and lumbering through town while bringing Freddy’s eyes to life with the sadness behind them. Certainly this is the only time a Stallone character has sat around listening to Springsteen on a turntable—appropriate, for a movie that’s at least partly about gazing at New York from across the river in Jersey.


Cop Land also touches (if lightly) upon systematic racism, and the class-consciousness of New York cops who basically feel entitled to a nicer, cushier life than the city itself can provide. Mangold pays special attention to the status different levels of law enforcement confers on people. De Niro, in one of his underrated supporting-actor turns, gives a speech to Stallone that’s half call to arms and half pandering manipulation. Freddy, for his part, almost doesn’t realize the good he can do without the NYPD uniform.

Eventually (and a little too slowly), the movie becomes a Jersey Western, complete with a bell-chiming at dawn and a climactic guns-blazing showdown. Despite its careful pace, the film still manages to feel a little truncated at the end, as inexplicable voiceover from De Niro leads into the expository blather of the end credits. But when it immerses itself in Jersey by way of Stallone’s weary eyes, Cop Land provides a melancholy counterpoint to much of Stallone’s career. Like First Blood, it gains power from its star’s vulnerability, not his status as a musclebound superman.

Availability: Cop Land is available on Blu-ray and DVD (which can be obtained from your local video store), to stream through Netflix, or to rent or purchase from the major digital services.