Judge Neil Dorsett reviews Sly Stallone's best movie ever, barring Over the Top.
"I look around this town…and I don't like what I see anymore."
In 1997, writer/director James Mangold finally saw the release of his film of his own much-admired script, Cop Land, with an intensely illustrious cast mostly of crime genre veterans who put it in a can't-lose position in terms of draw. That movie was released on laserdisc and DVD in due order with a commentary by Mangold that gave little hint to the fact that, despite the ironclad box-office appeal of the cast, the movie had undergone test screening processes that had provoked some fairly major cuts, resulting in thematic revisions, before the movie came to theaters. Now, Miramax releases a director's cut DVD of Cop Land that restores the cut that came to them in the first place and tackles these thematic changes head-on in its extras.
Facts of the Case
The town of Garrison, New Jersey, is not far across the bridge from New York City. A large contingent of NYPD, having been declared auxiliary transit cops and thus allowed to live outside the city, have set up an "all blue" community in Garrison as a cooperative to provide a leisurely suburban lifestyle for themselves and their families. A hometown guy, Freddy Heflin (Sylvester Stallone), has worked for years as sheriff of Garrison as a consolation prize after a youth spent striving to join the New York force himself. Freddy was a capable applicant, but there was a problem—due to an event in his teens that saved the life of Liz Randone (Anabella Sciorra), Freddy is entirely deaf in his right ear. Freddy hovers at the periphery of police life as the town's sheriff; welcome at the cop bar but not privy to the "school sessions," as Figgis (Ray Liotta), Freddy's one close friend among the PD, refers to the meetings held there. Figgis knows what Freddy doesn't let himself know: something stinks in Garrison. When Murray "Superboy" Babbitch (Michael Rapaport) kills two joyriders in what he thinks is self-defense but isn't, his compatriots first clumsily attempt to save his job by performing a quick-and-dirty Fuhrmanesque plant, but that quickly goes wrong and in a deft move, Lieutenant Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel), Babbitch's uncle, spirits him away in a phony suicide. But this does little to defuse the powder keg, and as Internal Affairs agent Moe Tilden (Robert De Niro) moves in on Garrison but admits that the town is beyond his jurisdiction in the strictest sense, Freddy is forced to make a series of decisions that lead him to admit to himself, finally, that something is seriously wrong with this unsupervised town and that as sheriff, he's the one who's been falling down on that supervisor's job. But Freddy must face another question then: is the stain in Garrison delible?
Cop Land is a dense crime movie and I like it. I always did, and I like it more now. Not just by the benefit of hindsight comparison, either, as is sometimes the case with a revision. For contrast, think of the many insertions of the demon-face in The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen, whose title alone implies that you have seen the existing cut—or the changes to the newer editions of Star Wars, which are simply meaningless to those who haven't seen the picture (and, like the Exorcist situation, often unpleasant to their real audience—those who have). Here, on the other hand, is an example of the more fulfilling breed. I think I would have appreciated Cop Land more in general had this been the cut I saw the first time around.
One thing about movies is that they often try to emulate or even adapt the novel, which ignores the fact that the basic definition of a short story (a tale consumed in a single sitting) applies to movies perfectly. Thus, it is a rare case when a movie actually contains as much content as even a short novel. Cop Land is such a movie—and the resultant screen novel is not just a novel but an epic crime piece on an entire town's history through the eyes of its present. Crime fiction tends to be crowded, for simple logistic reasons: it's hard to generate any real plot unknowns—mysteries to be solved onscreen—with only a few characters to choose from.
So the field is crowded indeed. It's impossible to talk about Cop Land without discussing its cast, but good god, where do you begin? The movie's loaded with talent. We can take for granted that Keitel and De Niro will wow us, particularly as they appear onscreen together for the first time since Taxi Driver. But the movie provides much, much more than that. All the tiers of the ensemble are stocked with actors familiar from crime drama either on the large screen or small. Annabella Sciorra is the life-locked girl who Freddy once saved, with defeat in her eyes at every turn as she sees her husband (an enthusiastic Peter Berg) embroiled in a cynical affair with the tough-talking Rose Donlan (Cathy Moriarty, radiating unpleasantness). Longtime TV cops like John Spencer, Malik Yoba, and Arthur Nascarella inhabit peripheral roles. Liotta delivers his jittery characteristic self in its best incarnation since GoodFellas (arguably Figgis is a more complex character than the unrepentant Henry Hill) and manages to sell the movie's most clichéd moment. It was great to see Janeane Garofalo employ her trademark bitterness inspired this time not by general problems of romance (a poor use for her in movies) or politics, but a direct in-your-face disgusting, demoralizing situation. The odd man out is Robert Patrick, cast against his cowboy type and certainly different from what we all think of from Terminator 2, and emitting sleaze continuously. The thing about this movie is that it has a lot of really slick professionals and they're all playing to casting types with which they're very familiar, so not only do they all just step up to the plate and knock the first pitch out somewhere, but there's a lot of contextual shorthand going on too, which allows Mangold to jettison much of formal character development in secondary characters in order to concentrate on advancing the plot and concentrating on Freddy. Thus the massive majority of the acting problems in the movie, despite its copious cast, fall squarely on the meaty shoulders of Stallone. Much was made of the weight he gained for the role, but of course that was really just the beginning; the performance is weighty in far more than human bulk. He takes Freddy from the humbled and defeated creature of the beginning all the way through the heroism of the finale and on to the jaded disgust that must inevitably follow. It's surprising that Stallone wasn't considered by the Academy for this movie: not only did he inflate his midsection mightily and deliver a fine and complex performance afterward, but the character, Freddy, displays at least nominally a handicap, the Academy's favorite feature in a leading character. Of course, they did see the somewhat less character-involved theatrical cut, but still.
And regarding cuts, the additions to the movie here are extensive and there is also a deletion. Primarily what is added are short shots that took place during existing scenes and dialogue extensions. The three-second leads in the multi-tiered ensemble (De Niro, Liotta, and Keitel) each are granted extensions to their primary speeches in the movie. Liotta's extension is quick (to make up for it, he also gets to sing "Won't You Be My Neighbor" in another restoration later on) but the additions to the Tilden and Donlan speeches are extensive. In Keitel's case, the speech had been diced up line-for-line in the theatrical cut, and the greater context established here for the punchline is welcome. Rapaport's Superboy also gets a few extra words in during a key scene. But by far the most significant addition to the movie is the scene leading up to Keitel's speech, in which the western motif is most clearly stated; this silent walk is the true shift to the final act of this movie and is pivotal to the shift of emphasis that will follow. Some viewers complained of the theatrical cut of Cop Land that its violent conclusion was abrupt; here, you'd have to be an idiot not to see it coming. It is the moment of transformation for Freddy from Andy Griffith to Gary Cooper (or Buford Pusser, if you prefer), and a great moment for Stallone because we can look at him and see Freddy with his guts in his throat instead of an action hero who would find this whole confrontation trivial. These additions are seamless; however, some of the shots in the extended monologues are uncomfortably unmatched to their counterparts who existed in the theatrical version. Shots of De Niro and Liotta jump in quickly to extreme close-ups (almost looking like zooms to cover damage at the edges at the frame), and the sound is detectably different in all three cases. Small quibbles though, since all of the additions are rewarding, including the many that are simply short, silent extensions of shots we'd seen before in the theatrical cut—character-establishing flourishes or visual cues that had been thought to slow the film.
It must be said that Mangold did take a bit of dramatic license in this movie, particularly with vehicles. In one decision-making scene, Liotta is depicted as unable to keep from looking at himself in the rearview mirror of his car. It seems he could have avoided this painful self-confrontation by looking at something other than both of his own eyes in his rear-view mirror, like for instance the road. But who really cares about that anyway, and since that happens in the final act, we're already in a different world than that of the realistic procedural and people can do things like that. Harder to explain is a scene where Arthur Nascarella lets himself out of the back of Freddy's cruiser. Maybe cops just know where the secret button is? On the other hand, the slow crash of the joyriders' car and the way its radio continues playing afterward is one damn realistic car stoppage; the radio thing impresses me every time, it really screams dead occupants at both Superboy and the audience.
One thing that puzzled me was that while the movie omits the "coda," as Mangold calls it, that was present in the theatrical release, its plot content is still present in the final line of the radio babble that concludes the film. If the scene was omitted because it contradicted the intention (which appears to be the case, and some of Mangold's comments in the commentary support that), then the retention of the line in the babble is mystifying. If not, one wonders why the scene had to go, as it did provide a more gentle release from the picture as a whole (probably I just liked the more contemplative walkout music, which kicks in a bit later in this cut). The Dragnet-style music sting is a much more aggressive way to round out the film; I would contend that the omission of the radio babble altogether, and that line in particular, would have strengthened it further. As far as the coda scene goes, it does surprise me that it didn't make the deleted scenes in the special features.
As far as those features go, they comprise the usual for a single-disc special edition: a short documentary, an audio commentary, and a couple of deleted scenes. Also on the special features menu is a lengthy company trailer for Miramax itself, an obnoxious fluff piece detailing their accomplishments in the field of winning Academy Awards. This trailer is also kind enough to play itself every time you start the disc! How pleasing. How nice of them. How totally goddamned inappropriate for a disc that is labeled as belonging to a "collector's series." A collector is likely to want to see your movie more than once; this is not a VHS rental situation, please spare us this kind of thing as an introduction to the disc. Absent, on the other hand, are any trailers for Cop Land. Anyway, the hell with the stupid trailer, the commentary is excellent. Mangold acts as a host for what's actually a round-table shop talk discussion about the movie among the four participants (himself, Stallone, Robert Patrick, and producer Cathy Konrad), spurring the others with productive interview-type questions along the way. This is in contrast to the previous solo commentary by a less seasoned Mangold, which occasionally veered toward the hubristic, but on the other hand was quite informative and now must join the ranks of lost commentaries. Its inclusion at a low bitrate, even if it would be stuttery as a result of the changes, would not have been totally unwarranted here, but its absence is no crime. This time the group is lively, interested, and engaged. All the parties are pleased with their work in the film, and everyone else's work in the film, so there's plenty of back-patting involved, but it's still pretty good stuff. Stallone in particular is quite funny, referring to his enlarged shape as "a heavy-bag with eyeballs." It's clear that the man recognizes this picture as the career milestone it is for him. Patrick provides a great counterpoint as an actor; he and Stallone are pretty much opposites in terms of this movie, in previous experience as well as their characters onscreen. They are also the two performers in this picture who were playing against type. Overall, it makes for a good team for an audio commentary, and they rarely go quiet.
So we have Cop Land now the way Mangold wanted it, and it's pretty fine stuff. But it also makes you wonder, is this guy, who was so green when he made this top-notch picture, is ever going to top it…because if and when he does, the results will be spectacular indeed. Looking over his catalog, I would say that Mangold has not beaten his large-scale debut as of yet. But that day may come. If it does, Mangold will become our pre-eminent crime filmmaker.
Cop Land is an excellent film and a greatly superior crime story. It stands among the best among the crime genre pictures of the 1990s (in my opinion surpassing many of them, including its vaunted contemporary L.A. Confidential), and if it misses being a great movie by a few hairs, it is still a fine one. It is enriched by the additions made to this director's cut and should be viewed by anyone who's into the genre or anyone who appreciates cross-genre filmmaking, and the cast alone recommends it to pretty much anyone else. While Cop Land could perhaps be slicker in some ways, it is a pure effort on a complex and pleasing story, and does not fail to satisfy. Movies this large are rarely this good. And while one might sour-grape and say that Mangold had a lot of insurance with this cast, speculating that the movie might not be memorable without these talented people—it is not without them. The movie would probably have been good anyway, but the additional strength lent by this cast puts it over into a realm of movies that can be enjoyed over and over again.
Not guilty! Cop Land is free to go.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with James Mangold, Cathy Konrad, Sylvester Stallone, and Robert Patrick
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