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'Cop Land': Heavy Muddle

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Aug. 15, 1997

"Cop Land" has too much plot and too many characters, but it’s more notable for what it lacks -- Sylvester Stallone’s cheekbones.

Oh, they’re there all right -- or else the whole face would implode -- but under the poundage he acquired for this role, they have become invisible. We approve.

In his first few "Rocky" films, the stallionman had an easy, beguiling charm that seemed to point a certain way in a film career. But then -- big mistake -- he discovered narcissism as philosophy and dieting as a lifestyle and ever since has had cheekbones like brass doorknobs over concave cheeks that could bounce radar impulses to the moon and back. You could not look at him without regretting the invention of the mirror. Worse, you could never believe him. He was something quite rare: foolishly handsome.

But at last, belief is possible. As Freddy Heflin, sheriff of Garrison, N.J., right across the river from New York City, he’s a hulking, tentative, essentially sweet guy. With that face swaddled in avoirdupois and a fatty’s lumber to his gait, he’s more lovable than intimidating. The sad hound-eyes fit into that pancake of a mug; he seems human, not godlike. And he’s in way over his head.

Freddy’s authority doesn’t really exist. A group of detectives from the 37th Precinct across the river has essentially taken over the civic reins in the town, and use it as their private fiefdom away from the city’s gritty woes. They hang in a lounge -- one point made by the movie is that Cop Land, Cop Land is essentially a wonderful bar and grill land -- where they drink, curse, stick darts up each other’s noses and plot against each other. Their leader is a bad lieutenant named Ray Conlon and played -- no surprise here -- by Harvey Keitel. His minions consist of some excellent character actors reduced to stereotype: the fiery one (Robert Patrick), the immature one (Peter Berg), the mature one (John Spencer) and a few other hard-faced dicks. An ex-communicant from the in-group is the coke-head detective Gary Figgis, played by Ray Liotta.

What initiates the action of the film is that one of the cops -- Maury "Superboy" Babitch, well-played by Michael Rapaport -- accidentally guns down a couple of joy-riding black teenagers as he heads across the George Washington Bridge. To prevent his railroading, the cops spirit him back to Cop Land where they mean to stash him until they can set him up in a new identity -- that’s a pretty thin device. But wait, it gets thinner: An internal affairs cop named Moe Tilden (Robert De Niro) suspects the ruse, suspects further they have connections to a Mafia family and recruits Freddy to keep an eye on them, though Freddy seems unable to handle that.

Unfortunately, while Stallone can carry the weight, the movie can’t. Too much of it is too busy -- too many undeveloped subplots -- and some of the main plotting feels murky. Why, for example, after they go to all the trouble to save Superboy, do the lord and masters of Cop Land then try to kill him? Writer-director James Mangold can’t stop inventing back ground for his characters: Freddy’s one act of heroism was to save a teenage girl from a car wreck, damaging his ear and consigning him to Palookaville forever. Now she’s grown up and married one of the cops -- Joey Randone (Berg) -- but he still loves her, blah blah blah.

But at its heart, the movie has a good story to tell: the lumbering oaf who’s not nearly as stupid and not nearly as gutless as all the hot dogs from the big city think. It’s an old favorite: an inversion of the masculine hegemony, where the least capable man suddenly proves himself the most capable. Stallone’s Freddy fits into a long, honorable line of unlikely heros, the most recent being Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson in "Fargo." By the end, and despite the presence of the most eastern of all cityscapes looming across the horizon on the other side of the river, it becomes a western.

COP LAND (R) — Contains violence and profanity.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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