Sylvester Stallone is enjoying a wave of publicity these days extolling his high-mindedness for accepting less than his usual mega-millions to appear in a "serious film." But after seeing "Cop Land," a question naturally arises: Has Stallone really done anyone any favors?
It's not that Stallone, who plays a lumpish, slow-witted New Jersey sheriff, embarrasses himself in "Cop Land." His is a modest, unshowy performance, expressing a genuineness absent from virtually every other Stallone picture since the first "Rocky." But sometimes, Stallone is so muted that he barely registers in the film, though his character, Sheriff Freddy Heflin, is meant to be its very heart.
Stallone is intent on stripping himself of his normal gladiator posing but isn't quite sure how to replace it. He finally settles on a wistful impenetrability.
It doesn't help that he shares the screen with Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel and Ray Liotta, who crackle with hostility, resentment and well-earned cynicism. Their presence only exaggerates the sense of stupor that surrounds Stallone through much of "Cop Land."
It also doesn't help that the screenplay by James Mangold, who directed as well, isn't quite plausible. Still, "Cop Land" can be forgiven for any number of faults, if for no other reason than the pleasure of seeing De Niro and Keitel, co-stars 21 years ago in "Taxi Driver," sharing the screen again. (The presence of both in 1984's forgettable "Falling in Love" hardly counts.)
In their one scene together, De Niro, as a New York City internal affairs investigator named Moe Tilden, enters a diner where Ray Donlan (Keitel), his target, is sipping coffee. Neither man can quite conceal his hatred for the other behind their mundane pleasantries. Their words are mundane; the exchange, riveting.
Other formidable performers march through Mangold's film, including Annabella Sciorra as the woman Stallone pines for, Cathy Moriarty, Peter Berg and Janeane Garofalo, although none of them is given nearly enough screen time to slake the appetite for them. Many of the actors -- particularly Moriarty, Liotta and Stallone, who put on 40 flabby pounds for the film -- have the look of dissipation, which is appropriate in a film about corruption.
The corruption originates on the opposite side of the East River from Freddy's town of Garrison. Donlan leads a clan of Manhattan cops who pay mortgages in Garrison with money they earn by turning their precinct over to the mob.
Freddy always wanted to be a New York City cop, an ambition snuffed out. As a teen-ager, he saved Sciorra's character from drowning but lost his hearing in one ear, dooming his chances of joining a big-city force.
So instead of patrolling New York's mean streets, Freddy half-heartedly tracks speeders in placid New Jersey, investigates the dumping of household garbage and affably bears the casual disdain of the New York cops who treat him like a water boy. But Freddy doesn't mind much. He figures he used up all his resolve when he saved Sciorra all those years ago.
"Cop Land's" ungainly narrative gets under way when Donlan's cop nephew, Murray (Michael Rapaport), loses his cool and blows away two unarmed kids on the George Washington Bridge. To save his nephew, Donlan improvises a fake suicide for Murray while hiding him in Garrison. But De Niro, who has been trying to nail Donlan for years, doesn't bite on the suicide story. He believes Murray is alive, but needs some inside help, which leads him to poor, defeated Freddy.
All of this plotting ends up feeling ponderous and finally obscures the performances. Still, "Cop Land" might have succeeded had Freddy's redemption been comprehensible. It is not. Stallone's famously heavy-lidded eyes and his slump-shouldered walk convey Freddy's lifelong disappointment with himself. What he's less successful at is suggesting a residue of inner spark that would rouse him into action.
"Cop Land's" final fit of violence, filmed in near silence, is at least imaginative. It also leads to a familiar Stallone image. He is bloodied and lurching but still able to answer the final bell. At least he isn't calling for Adrian.
Starring Sylvester Stallone, Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro and Annabella Sciorra
Directed by James Mangold
Released by Miramax Pictures
Rated R (language, violence)
Sun score: ** 1/2
Pub Date: 8/15/97