“Buried Treasures” is a bi-weekly film series highlighting beloved films that have been either underseen or underappreciated. Every other week, one 25YL columnist will choose a film they think is deserving of additional praise and shine a spotlight on that film. The film chosen may be one that few have heard of, or maybe it will be one that was panned by critics. Either way, their spirited defence of the film will hopefully encourage more people to give it a chance and maybe even find a new favourite film. In a seemingly endless sea of negativity on the internet, “Buried Treasures” provides a space where positivity reigns.
When 25YL’s very own Ashley Harris proposed the idea for “Buried Treasures,” I immediately thought of a film among my personal favourites that perfectly fit her description of the series. Said film stars my childhood hero in a role that showcases his talents in an entirely different light, is directed by an acclaimed writer-director who earned his first Academy Award nomination as recently as this year for co-writing 2017’s Logan, and features a powerhouse supporting cast the likes of which would make any cinephile stand up and take notice. Obviously, if you’re reading this then you already know I’m taking about Cop Land, James Mangold’s 1997 urban Western set in the fictional town of Garrison, New Jersey. Based on his real-life hometown of Washingtonville, New York, Cop Land finds Mangold drawing from his experiences of living in a seemingly quiet small town close to the crime-ridden big city while using a fable-like Western narrative to comment on police corruption, politics, and race.
Of course, the first time I hit play on Cop Land was not because it was an early film from the guy who made Walk the Line or because it co-starred the “You talking to me?” guy from Taxi Driver; no, I found out about Cop Land because it starred Sylvester Stallone. You see, Stallone was the first movie star I ever associated with that term, having spent many a weekend at my grandparents’ house watching the Rocky movies as a child. The films were taped on VHS, recorded from when they played on the TV. There were dozens of them, probably hundreds, all with the name of the film written on the cassette like it had been rented from the nearest Blockbuster. As I grew older and I saw more of Stallone’s work like First Blood and Cliffhanger and Demolition Man, I knew there was more to the man than just the brawn and physicality on display. A quick search into his life tells you all you need to know about hard work, dedication, and how a dreamer with nothing left to lose became an inspiration to millions.
For all of the rubbish Stallone has made (and he’ll be the first to tell you about how his ego and greed blinded him many a time during his career), he is still a Golden Globe-winning actor, a three-time Academy Award-nominated actor and writer, and he became the first person to have had a number one movie at the U.S. box office in five separate decades. If that’s not the résumé of a film star then I don’t know what is. The career of an actor is a treacherous one, to say the least, and Cop Land was Stallone’s attempt to immerse himself back in the world of real acting after a string of misfires (Rocky V), poor decisions (Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot), and colossal failures (Judge Dredd). While Cop Land was greeted with good reviews and was a solid if unremarkable box office earner—grossing $63.7 million on a $15 million budget—it, unfortunately, did no favours for Stallone’s career and he wouldn’t really recover until the release of Rocky Balboa in 2006. There’s no business like show business, right?
Cop Land sees Sylvester Stallone star as Freddy Heflin, the modestly soft-spoken sheriff of a tight-knit and seemingly peaceful town populated by members of the New York City Police Department. Freddy worships the NYPD, but his dreams of joining the force were cut short many years earlier when he became deaf in his right ear after rescuing a woman, Liz Randone (Annabella Sciorra), from drowning. Crime rates are low, yet there’s more than meets the eye behind the suburban tranquillity of Garrison. Freddy is aware of the corrupt nature of the NYPD officers, but he mostly turns a deaf ear so long as it keeps his town safe. But when Officer Murray “Superboy” Babitch (Michael Rapaport), the nephew of Lt. Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel), apparently commits suicide after killing two young black men in a shootout, Freddy uncovers a deadly jigsaw of conspiracy and corruption and is forced to find his moral purpose, uphold his vow to law and order, and protect the town he loves from the darkness beneath.
From the outset, we know Cop Land is going to be more than just a simple story of good vs. evil. It’s a thematically rich and narratively complex film about an unsuspecting hero having to navigate through philosophies and find redemption in a world that has kicked him to the curb. Somewhat mirroring Stallone’s own career in the mid-’90s, Cop Land’s Freddy is a man who is searching for a purpose and respectability, despite being thought of as a bit of a joke among his peers. Freddy is the middle-aged version of a Rocky Balboa who never made it out of the slums of Philadelphia. It has been well documented for over 20 years now about Stallone’s significant 40-pound weight gain for the film, but what’s more impressive than that is his thoughtful, understated performance in a cast filled to the brim with talent in every frame. Cop Land doesn’t feature Sylvester Stallone the movie star; no, this is a man who has left vanity behind, standing toe-to-toe with the likes of De Niro every step of the way.
Seriously, it’s not just Stallone who shines in this film, as the entire ensemble cast is simply remarkable, and I have no idea how one film was able to pull in all this talent and give them something interesting to do. Sylvester Stallone, Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Peter Berg, Janeane Garofalo, Robert Patrick, Michael Rapaport, Annabella Sciorra, and Cathy Moriarty are just a handful of the incredible performers who are responsible for making Cop Land as gripping and thrilling as it is. Despite how I’d normally approach an article here at 25YL, I don’t want to delve too deep into spoilers during this piece, as this series is more about celebrating the underappreciated and hopefully introducing a new audience to a forgotten gem, but it’d be remiss of me not to mention how painfully relevant Cop Land’s social commentary on police brutality and racial profiling still is all these years later. It’s a sad inditement on how little we’ve grown as a society, and how far we’ve still got to go until true equality.
In talking about the racial aspects of the film, it was a surprise for me to find two deleted scenes on the Blu-ray—omitted still from the 15-minute longer, 116-minute director’s cut—that further shows the racism that infests the town of Garrison. The first of which enhances our hatred for Robert Patrick’s Jack Rucker as his contempt for Garrison’s black community is further explored, and the second of which sees Deputy Cindy Betts (Janeane Garofalo) questioning Freddy about the lopsided amount of tickets issued to black motorists compared to white drivers. I can understand why the scenes were left on the cutting room floor as I can’t really see where they’d fit in the narrative, but I’m glad they’re still available to view as they do enhance the less obvious thematic depth that Mangold weaved into his quite brilliant screenplay. Cop Land is the type of film that rewards with multiple viewings and should be appreciated for its non-traditional approach of packing so much into something unexpected.
Also, without delving too deep into spoilers, I have to mention the climactic ending; it blew me away the first time I saw it, and I appreciate its inventiveness more and more as the years go by. What makes the explosive ending so brilliant is not that we finally see Stallone getting his heroic moment, but that it uses Freddy’s deafness to the film’s advantage and creates something wholly unique. Now, tinnitus has been a constant pain in my life since I was about 18 (the result of my total disregard for the loudness of music in any given situation), and through Cop Land’s entire climax we can only hear what Freddy can hear (which is almost nothing given his predicament at that time). My hearing is fine, but that high-pitched ring is something I hear every second of every day, and it was genuinely unnerving to experience Cop Land’s ending for the first time, not knowing how the sound would practically drop out and all that was coming through the speakers was the same ringing with which I’m so familiar.
It’s these little nuances that, for me, makes Cop Land such a favourite of mine. I’ve yet to mention how great it is to see Robert De Niro—in a somewhat smaller supporting role—on the good side of the law as internal affairs investigator Lt. Moe Tilden, or how Ray Liotta’s morally ambiguous role as Officer Gary Figgis is the yin to Freddy’s yang, but there’s so much packed into Cop Land’s two hours that its ambitiousness far outweighs any shortcomings one might have. I don’t really have an answer for why I believe Cop Land never set the world on fire back in the ’90s, but I guess its release in the wake of such instant classics like Goodfellas (also starring Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta) and Pulp Fiction (also starring Harvey Keitel) drew unfair comparisons to genuine cinematic masterpieces. Cop Land is so much more than its reputation as failed Oscar bait, and I hope this article has gone some way in convincing you to either give it a shot or to make room for a rewatch at some point in the future.
I imagine it was intimidating enough for the then 33-year-old James Mangold having to direct only his second film featuring the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta and Robert De Niro, but to then see the film unfairly compared to such landmark milestones in cinema must’ve been a bitter pill to swallow. Cop Land is neither as good as Goodfellas or as impeccably crafted as Pulp Fiction but, to be fair to Mangold, it isn’t trying to be either of those films. Cop Land stands on its own feet as a forgotten gem among the crowded crime drama-heavy decade that was the 1990s, and it’s a film that is more than deserving of critical reappraisal 21 years after its release. “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,” says Jesse Hassenger in his A.V. Club review of the film and he’s absolutely right. Cop Land is a movie treasure that deserves to be buried no more.
So, what are your thoughts on Cop Land in the grand scheme of Sylvester Stallone’s career? Is this buried treasure due for significant critical reappraisal now that two decades have passed since its release, or do you have thoughts on why it was never a hit with audiences in the first place? Please leave a comment and let us know by following the information about our social media accounts, which can be found below. Alternatively, you can follow me on Twitter (@JonSheasby), and we’ll continue the conversation over there.
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