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'Cop Land': No Muscle

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Aug. 15, 1997

"Cop Land" was supposed to do for Sylvester Stallone what "Pulp Fiction" did for John Travolta. But this sluggish exploration of police corruption lacks the juice to jump-start a moped, much less the has-been himbo's stalled career. Although the newly paunchy Stallone is credible as a weak, conflicted small-time sheriff, this suburban "Serpico" is a noble, passionless charade.

Written and directed by James Mangold, the drama is dense but misses the moral complexities and grit, not to mention the oomph, of its urban predecessors. But it takes a more ardent director to bring genuine outrage to this increasingly familiar plot line. Mangold's work comes from the head, not from the gut. He may believe what he's saying, he just doesn't feel it.

Stallone, on the other hand, physically transforms himself into the slumped and groggy Freddy Heflin. He not only packed on 40 pounds -- a la co-star Robert De Niro in "Raging Bull" -- but he obviously hasn't lifted so much as an eyebrow for many moons, and his shoulders sag in keeping with the middle-age protagonist's spirits.

Freddy, a tongue-tied underdog in the "Rocky" mold, dreamed of growing up and becoming one of New York's finest but lost his hearing in one ear while a teenager and has had to content himself with policing Garrison, N.J., instead. Located just across the river from Manhattan, the town was founded by a close-knit enclave of NYPD officers in search of a safe place for their wives and kids.

Garrison is safe, all right, but it's not law-abiding. And Freddy has long turned his deaf ear to the rumors that Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel), a crusty veteran of the NYPD, financed Cop Land with mob money. Over the years, Donlan has devolved into a tinhorn despot, and with the help of his ruthless lieutenants runs the town as if it were his own fiefdom.

Except for the occasional domestic squabble or barroom brawl, Garrison is understandably quiet, and Freddy's long since given in to the ennui. Besides, the badge is strictly ornamental and his authority no greater than that of a school crossing guard. But Freddy gets a last shot at becoming a real cop when a heroic young officer's suicide is faked following a shootout on the George Washington Bridge, and dogged, cynical Moe Tilden (De Niro) of Internal Affairs suspects Donlan of a coverup.

Tilden's jurisdiction ends at the bridge, however, so he must persuade Freddy to take a stand against the big-city cops. Unfortunately, Freddy's so lethargic it's a wonder he has the energy to digest a doughnut. Livelier types like Donlan and Tilden continue to advance the plot, but there can be no resolution till the logy lawman wakes from his self-imposed sleepwalk. As we know he must.

Eventually, of course, it is "High Noon" in New Jersey and a sheriff's got to do what a sheriff's got to do. And while Stallone gives his most affable, least narcissistic performance since "Rocky," he is no Gary Cooper. He's a pooped palooka, surrounded by actors of Cooper's caliber. Along with De Niro and Keitel, the stellar cast includes Ray Liotta as a disaffected member of Donlan's cabal, Cathy Moriarty as Donlan's wandering wife, Peter Berg as a macho cop and Annabella Sciorra as his long-suffering wife.

With its redundancy of supporting characters, snarled subplots and poky pace, "Cop Land" really might have been better off trading the director for a traffic cop.

Cop Land is rated R for violence and profanity.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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