At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Cop Land “97”

At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Cop Land “97”

MPAA Rating: R/Genre: Neo-Noir Crime Drama/Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Peter Berg, Janeane Garofalo, Robert Patrick, Michael Rapaport, Annabella Sciorra, Noah Emmerich, Cathy Moriarty, John Spencer, Frank Vincent, Malik Yoba, Arthur Nascarella, Victor Williams, Edie Falco, Mel Gorham, Paul Herman, Paul Calderón, Vincent Laresca, Method Man, Deborah Harry, Frank Pellegrino, John Ventimiglia, Robert John Burke, John Doman/Runtime: 105 minutes

I think it’s safe to start this review off by bestowing upon all of you a nugget of wisdom that several members of my family, all at different times thank goodness, have tried to pass along to me in my life. That being “the path of righteousness is not always the path most traveled” or as other people might choose to word it: “if everyone jumped off a bridge would you go with them or would you choose to do the smart thing and get off the bridge?”. Indeed it’s a bit of wisdom that, besides the potential it can have on your own life to say nothing of potentially never making you want to take bungee jumping classes a day in your life, is also one that has long been at the crux of a lot of movies/ TV shows throughout the years. I mean from Casablanca which showed nightclub owner Rick choosing between helping his lost love at the expense of his happiness or continuing to turn a blind eye like he’s always done at the expense of his morality, Schindler’s List which tells the incredible true story of Oskar Schindler who had to choose between continued wealth and success at the cost of working with true evil or becoming bankrupt yet ensuring the continued existence of an entire race of people, and Gone Baby Gone where the main character must choose between righteously reuniting someone with their unstable mother yet in the process ensuring they might not having the best life in the world or looking the other way and allowing them to remain happy in the care of someone who literally kidnapped them it’s clear that the land of movie magic has long enjoyed throwing all of us as viewers into quite the moral conundrum time and time again. The reason I bring this up to you incidentally dear reader is because there is another example of this kind of film that sadly has not gotten the attention that perhaps it deserves. That being the 1997 neo-noir crime drama, and slice of cinema I am reviewing for you today incidentally, Cop Land. Indeed here is a film that, upon first blush, might seem like nothing more than just a gripping story of good cops, bad cops, and cops that might be somewhere in between yet the truth is it’s a much more complex film than that. Rather, this is the story of a sheriff who has been contently sleepwalking through a large portion of his life yet, through a series of events, finds himself having to choose between continuing to contently sleepwalk or maybe just maybe get the chance to show that he is worthy to both wear that star on his shirt to say nothing of be called at the least a cop and at most a genuinely good man. To be sure, it’s not a perfect film by any stretch, but even so there is also no denying that with the aid of capable work both behind and especially in front of the camera Cop Land is one underrated gem that you should most assuredly check out if given the chance to do so.

The plot is as follows: Cop Land gets its riveting story underway by taking us to the locale of Garrison, New Jersey and, in the process, giving us a wee bit of back story about the place. It seems that a group of officers from that distinct organization known as the NYPD with a specific emphasis on the 37th Precinct wished to live outside the city only to find they couldn’t due to departmental regulations. Undeterred however, we soon learn that this group, as headed by one Lt. Ray Donlan, was able to find a loophole in the regulations that allowed them to do so if they were designated as “auxiliary transit cops”. By doing so, we see that the group was able to set up their own quasi-sorta safe space where they could pretty much do whatever they wanted without anyone from Internal Affairs being able to touch them. On top of that, we also learn that the group is further protected from prosecution by the town sheriff, and our main hero, Freddy Heflin. A guy who, at one time, wanted to be a part of the NYPD himself, but due to being deaf in one ear as the result of a heroic rescue he made prior to the start of our story, instead has settled into a seemingly contented life made up of equal parts eating a doughnut or 5, looking the other way, handling little local matters, catching the occasional speeder, and hero worshipping the men he views as “real cops”. Tragically for our main hero Freddy, and perhaps even the cop squad living in his town, we see that the good times can only last for so long before reality comes back around to give you a reckoning of sorts. In the case of this particular story, that aforementioned reckoning comes one night when Donlan’s nephew, one Murray Babbitch, is involved in an automobile skirmish of sorts by a pair of African-American youth while making his way back home across the George Washington Bridge. If this wasn’t bad enough, we see that it isn’t long before one of the youth points what appears to be a gun at Babbitch at the exact moment his tire pops from inadvertently running over some glass earlier in the day and, in the ensuing chaos, our “super trooper” here proceeds to shoot and kill both of the youth. Of course, Donlan and some of the squad show up to try and “correct the situation”, but when that goes south as well we see Donlan, in an act of sheer desperation, tell his boy wonder of a nephew to fake his death and hide out in Garrison while he gets him a new identity. Yet when our sheriff hero inadvertently gets wind of this scheme, coupled with a visit to town by a rather dogged member of IA by the name of Mo Tilden, we see that he is inspired to maybe actually take action for a change. As for what occurs from there and the impact that this choice has however I think I’ll let you see that for yourself…..

Now right off, it should be noted that overall the work done by the various departments behind the camera is fairly solid despite the presence of a couple of issues here and there. Perhaps the most significant issue is one that can be attributed to the script that this slice of cinema is operating with. Now it’s not the fact that this script, as penned by director James Mangold, is terribly written. Quite the opposite in fact. Rather, it’s more so that the script is guilty of trying to put 10 pounds of material in a 5-pound bag as I like to call it. As a result, the film does seem to suffer to a fair degree from being all over the place due to the phenomenal collection of characters and their arcs that are present when honestly a significantly more streamlined approach to this material, especially when operating with a 104-minute runtime like this film is, would have been a heck of a lot more suitable. With that particular hurdle in mind however, there is no denying that the rest of the work done behind the camera does manage to make up for it fairly well. For starters, there might be issues with the script that he has penned for this film, but as far as his work in the director’s chair is concerned I can safely say that James Mangold definitely delivers the goods and then some here in the best way. Indeed not only does he do a phenomenal job of drenching the whole affair in an atmosphere that is borderline melancholic in the best way possible to say nothing of permitting the film to build suspense in an effective manner that is very much the dictionary definition of a “slow-burn”, but he also wisely puts more of an emphasis on the characters and the dilemma at the heart of the film before any kind of gun battles or fisticuffs respectively. As a result, not only do we get to learn about who these characters are as people, but we also are able to understand them and what motivates them to do what they do in the film better than if they were just cookie-cutter good guy/bad guy archetypes. Along with the work done by Mangold in the director’s chair, the film also features some brilliant work from Eric Edwards in the cinematography department. Indeed Edwards does a masterful job here of ensuring that whilst what we are seeing unfurl before us is very restrained, it is also undeniably shot in a manner that is both hauntingly beautiful and captivating all at the same time. Lastly, this section would not be complete if I didn’t take some time to praise the work done by Howard Shore (Lord of the Rings trilogy, Videodrome, The Fly from ’86, After Hours, and Silence of the Lambs among many others) on this film’s musical accompaniment. Indeed Shore has always been a brilliant composer and here we see that he gives this film a score that is a wonderful blend of melancholic and genuinely gripping in equal measure. Suffice it to say that when you also factor in skilled work from the production design team as headed by Lester Cohen, terrific choices for the characters in terms of their attire by Ellen Lutter and the costume department, and on-point editing work from Craig McKay respectively it’s clear that while not perfect by any stretch this is still all together a solidly made little movie.

Alongside the solid work done behind the camera, this slice of cinema is also blessed with a collection of top-tier performances in front of the camera as well. Without a doubt in my mind this starts with the work done by Sylvester Stallone and this is easily one of the more underrated efforts of the man’s iconic career. Indeed as Freddy, we see that Stallone is able to effectively shed his action hero screen persona and give us a downtrodden guy who at one time might have been the town golden boy and who could have been a genuinely great cop yet, through tragic circumstances, has resigned himself both physically and psychologically to being the law more in title rather than actual duties only to slowly but surely get woken up to what has been going on under his nose and decide to actually take charge for a change instead of let people walk over him. Indeed it’s a truly remarkable performance and one that Stallone manages to convey phenomenally well. We are also treated to a wonderful turn here from the late yet great Ray Liotta in the role of Gary Figgis. Indeed Liotta was always, no matter the overall quality of the film he was in, a joy to watch and here he does a terrific job at playing a middle of the road-morals wise guy who has, from a psychologically perspective, paid quite the price for all the underhandedness that he has engaged in over the years and is now desperately trying in some way to make sense of, or even atone for, all the things he has done only to find the path to comprehension/redemption a bit bumpier than he might have imagined. Yes you might think you know where this character’s arc is going to go, but trust me when I say that Liotta still gives the character a ferocity, manic energy, and even wisdom that makes him worth rooting for as a character.  We also are given a wonderful supporting effort here from screen legend Robert DeNiro in the pivotal co-starring role of IA investigator Lt. Moe Tilden. Indeed he might not have as much screentime as some of the other actors in this, but even so there is no denying that DeNiro does a masterful job of bringing a dogged determination, steadfast morality, and brutal honesty to a guy who is very much meant to be the personification of the good angel on the main character’s shoulder albeit one who, in one of the more electrifying scenes in the movie, has no qualms about making Freddie very much aware of the consequences a specific choice of his has brought about. Lastly, I definitely think this section would be amiss if I didn’t take some time to praise the work done by Harvey Keitel in the role of Lt. Ray Donovan ehh Donlan (sorry; wrong show). Indeed I have always appreciated Keitel and his talents as an actor and here we see that he does a terrifically chilling job at bringing an understated yet highly effective ruthlessness and menace to a character that is able to, with frightening ease, go from patting you on the back and smiling/joking with you to having his henchmen try and intimidate you to see if you gave him up in a meeting with IA respectively. Suffice it to say when you also include solid efforts from such talents as Annabella Sciorra, Peter Berg, Robert Patrick, Michael Rappaport, Noah Emmerich, John Spencer, Frank Vincent, and Cathy Moriarity among others it’s clear that whilst this film definitely might have some issues the work done in front of the camera does what it can to help patch things up.

All in all and at the end of the day is Cop Land a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination? Sadly no though not for lack of effort on the part of either the cast or crew that was involved in bringing it to life. With that in mind however, is this the worst film that anyone involved in the making of this slice of cinema has ever been a part of? Thankfully, much to my relief to say nothing of peace of mind, I can also say that is not the case. To be sure, this slice of cinema is one that suffers more than slightly from having that horrible cinematic medical condition known as way too many subplots crammed into it’s fairly lean and mean runtime and as such the quality of the film does dip a bit as a result. With that being said however, the film is tautly helmed, beautifully shot, majestically scored, and the rest of the work done behind the camera proves to be just as much on point as it needs to be. As for the work done in front of the camera, it should be said that even though there are way too many characters here for this film to properly focus on, the work done by the undeniably talented cast of players that has been assembled here (with particular regard to the performances given by Stallone, Liotta, Keitel, and DeNiro) are all absolutely solid to such an extent that by and large every performer involved here manages to make the most of the screentime that they are given no matter how big or small the amount in question turns out to be. Suffice it to say then that if you are looking for a cinematic masterclass crime drama saga then definitely check out Michael Mann’s 1995 epic Heat, 2006’s The Departed, 1983’s Scarface, or even 2002’s Road to Perdition to name but a few examples. On the other hand, if you are looking for a fairly solid entry in that genre that also turned out a wonderful against-type performance for its 80s action icon lead that I still think deserved at the least an Oscar nod and which will keep you hooked from beginning to end then give this film a shot. Yes (to use a cop’s supposed favorite food as a metaphor), it might be more Shipley’s than Krispy Kreme’s in terms of quality, but at least it ain’t running on Dunkin’ either. Make of that what thou will dear reader. On a scale of 1-5 I give Cop Land a solid 3.5 out of 5.

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