While driving through Los Angeles the other day, I saw a large, obnoxious billboard for the upcoming Tom Cruise/Cameron Diaz movie Knight and Day (2010). While I had previously seen trailers for the rather awful looking film, I had not noticed, until seeing the billboard, that the film was directed by James Mangold. I asked my wife to confirm what I thought my eyes had seen and she answered with a sad nod. While I haven’t seen every one of his films (most notably Walk the Line—-I have a predisposition against biopics), I have always found myself unexpectedly pleased with them. I wasn’t a huge fan of Susanna Kaysen’s book, but Mangold’s treatment of Girl, Interrupted (1999), thanks to Angelina Jolie’s performance, was surprising. More significantly, I initially had mixed feelings about his more genre specific offerings: Identity (2003) and 3:10 to Yuma (2007). Yet, the casting of both films and the atmospherics and twist of the former gave me reason to revisit them. When I arrived home from the drive, I checked out Mangold’s filmography and realized I had forgotten Cop Land (1997), a film I remember watching sometime in high school but never returning to, despite the urging of a classmate who praised the 2004 Director’s Cut.
The film begins with a voice over from New York City Internal Affairs Lt. Moe Tilden (Robert De Niro), who explains to us that Garrison, New Jersey, a small town just over the George Washington Bridge from NYC, is populated by a precinct of NYC police officers who found a loophole in police code that has allowed them to live outside of their assigned area. Upon first appearance, Garrison does not seem too far removed from a Norman Rockwell painting. There’s hand painted mailboxes, white picket fences, and an incredibly low crime rate. While the town of Garrison is inhabited by NYPD, the authority figure overlooking the town is the bloated, sleepy Sheriff Freddy Heflin (Sylvester Stallone). Yet, the irony of the setup, the conflict, is that Freddy, as a pinball machine politely informs him following a loss in the opening scene, has no authority. His job is to make sure cats are rescued from trees, that tourists feel unwelcome and, implicitly, to keep the town white only.
Freddy’s role as the town sheriff becomes complicated when a band of his NYPD residents get into some shit on the other side of the Hudson. After a night of drinking, decorated cop Murray “Superboy” Babitch (Michael Rapaport) mistakes a pair of joyriding African American teens for carjackers and, after a brief pursuit, kills them both in a car crash. In order to avert any discussions of racial profiling and Babitch being questioned by Internal Affairs, police officers Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel), Joey Randone (Peter Berg), and Jack Rucker (Robert Patrick) attempt to plant evidence on the teens. When the plant goes awry, Donlan, Babitch’s uncle, helps the young man fake a suicide attempt in order to misdirect press and departmental attention. If the turn of events sounds convoluted to you, you’re not alone. Tilden, who has been investigating the officers of Garrison for years, knows something is rotten in Cop Land but, thanks to jurisdictional boundaries, cannot do a damn thing about it. The only one who Tilden can appeal to is Freddy, who is ambivalent to turn on his friends, many of whom he idolizes as members of the NYPD and therein lies the conflict: Freddy must get the citizens to respect his authority.
As Freddy deals with his decision and its consequential redemption/damnation, he finds little help from his staff (Janeane Garofalo and Noah Emmerich) and the townsfolk. His best friend and a former associate of Donlan, Figgsy (Ray Liotta) urges him not to get involved. After all, the last time Freddy helped someone, it was Liz Randone (Annabella Sciorra) and while he saved her life, he went deaf in one ear in the process and she ultimately married an abusive husband. What good is it to help people when they don’t help themselves? When Freddy ultimately decides that he is the one who watches the watchmen, he is abandoned, High Noon style, by all those who leaned on him in the past, leading to a rather amazing climax in which a prolonged shootout is represented to us from Freddy’s subjective point-of-view.
My original viewing of Cop Land at some time in the late 1990s, left me disappointed. Mangold had assembled a wonderful cast including Keitel, De Niro, Liotta, Sciorra, and Cathy Moriarty in a small role, but had often utilized them against type. Specifically, De Niro and Stallone are rather useless in the mechanisms of justice. The system is too corrupt for De Niro to be able to affect anything and Stallone has been taken advantage of for so long that he seems like an apathetic zombie. Re-watching the film, I admired Mangold’s casting and Stallone’s stunning performance. He’s the Terry Malloy of Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954), the Pete Menzies of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958). Freddy has been bullied into not caring but the potential of fulfilling his dream of becoming a good cop is right in front of him. Yet, the burden of his last sacrifice for the city provides a severe obstacle, which Stallone relays to us via his droopy, tired eyes and slow moving swagger. Any time he tries to help, any time he tries to talk, he’s cut down at the shins. So what’s the point?
While I appreciate Mangold’s plot, it ultimately grows too many twists and turns to be adequately handled in a film under two hours. To be reasonable, the film sets the bar incredibly high by attempting to intersect an intimidating character ensemble with a crime thriller but it struggles for coherency in the second hour as it juggles between them. Essentially, Mangold needed to simplify the plot, extend his film by another twenty minutes (the director’s cut does help some), or the smooth hands of Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland who brought the similarly realized L.A. Confidential (1997) to the screen just one month after the theatrical release of Cop Land. That said, the performances are obviously the main attraction here, coupled with refreshing third act that knocks you off your feet by oscillating between the deadline tension of a Western and the nerve-racking suspense of that final shootout. While Cop Land does not follow my experiences with Mangold’s films due to it not ultimately meeting the promise of the talent involved, I would classify it as underappreciated and very much worth watching. We’ll have to wait a few weeks to see how to classify Knight and Day but, despite my past experiences with Mangold, I’m not holding my breath.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.