Cop Land (1997)

Written and directed by James Mangold

There’s something about a Bruce Springsteenian underdog. A dignified loser of sorts, he’s not an angry, incel-y miscreant looking to lash out, nor is he a truly pathetic downtrodden woe-is-me sad-faced clown. Instead, there’s a self-possessed air to the Springsteenian loser; one cognisant of misfortune, resigned to it almost, yet still standing upright as if to say “it is what it is”.

Such a Springsteenian underdog is Freddy, the lonely sheriff staring down a precinct of cops in Cop Land, James Mangold’s AC(but not sheriffs)AB thriller where mob conspiracies, cop politics and modest dreams collide. 

The small town of Garrison, N.J, lies just across the river from New York City, which was a bit of a hellhole in the mid-90s. The cops of the time don’t want to live where they serve, so they bend the rule book and manage to emigrate en masse to settle the quaint New Jersey town like some new frontier – cop land. It’s this town Freddy, played by Sylvester Stallone, must police as its sheriff. 

Freddy desperately wants to be a cop too, but has been rejected repeatedly, due a hearing impairment he acquired during a daring rescue in his youth. The cops know of his wannabe-ness. They let him putter around like a mascot, a policeman with a pretend-badge and toy store uniform. Emasculated, Freddy mopes, a hangdog figure with a beer-hungry paunch tightening his shirt. 

One day, however, an investigator from NYPD’s Internal Affairs takes a seat across from him, and tells him this enclave he’s meant to police is a bunch of dirty cops with mob ties (gasp) and there’s a chance for him to do some real policing. Still, tall order for someone who can’t even get them to turn the music down when they throw a rowdy houseparty. Freddy goes home, curls up on his couch, drinks a few, and listens to Bruce… what’s a Springsteenian underdog to do? 

Cop Land boasts a cast of incredible firepower. Beyond Stallone, this game of cops-are-robbers features Harvey Keitel as the cop ringleader, Ray Liotta as a coked-out refusenik, Robert De Niro as the Internal Affairs investigator, and then half the cast of The Sopranos to plug any gaps. You can’t tell me David Chase wasn’t lurking off-set like some union recruiter as he was putting together his own New Jersey crime saga.

It’s unenviable to be up against heavyweights like this, and Stallone has a hard time. Keitel, Liotta and De Niro all eat him up, and Stallone doesn’t do himself any favors, playing Freddie as if it wasn’t just his one ear that was mangled in that fateful rescue, but everything between that and his other ear. His performance is on the back foot, lumbering into scenes, which is surprising for someone who made his name portraying an everyman with some fire in his guts. 

Everything else makes it easy to forget about Stallone, however, as Cop Land is a classic piece of blue collar action. How can you say a film about a sheriff is blue collar? I say it is because as everyone tells Freddy, he’s not a cop. Freddy is a civilian cake-topper, a front, a dummy made to man the till while moonshine is made in the basement. A working stiff who happens to carry a gun, a regular at the bar, a nice, decent guy who still carries a torch for a high school love that went unfulfilled. A simple man who wants a decent life in this small American town, his no-frills universe juxtaposed against the metropolis, its glitz, and the wolves that roam the shadowy streets below the skyline.  

That feeds into a secondary element, one of domesticity. As much as Cop Land advertises action and shootouts, its warfare is that of suburban intrigue. This is a small town where everyone knows each other. Powerful white men get bored, their wives too, and in the blind spots of content (or arrogance?) there’s mischief. Salacious!  

Police corruption and brutality is not news today. We’ve seen how the “thin blue line” is an umbilical cord connecting a militia-like unholy brotherhood. One that covers up wrongdoing by its members and rides roughshod over its oath. An exemplification of societal ill. It’s therefore a particular pleasure to watch Cop Land, as it satisfies a certain sense of wish fulfillment. The wrongdoing by this cabal is so clear, making the fight against it feel empowering in its inevitably. There will be a reckoning and whether that’s through the diligent detective work of Internal Affairs, or a High Noon-like showdown with rough odds for our lone hero, Cop Land rides high on the thrill of expectation. 

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