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I’ve seen rave reviews for Cop Land and I’ve seen reviews that say to avoid it. Ah, if only I could feel that strongly about it.

For a 7-year-old movie with restored footage, Cop Land looks very good
For a 7-year-old movie with restored footage, Cop Land looks very good

It was good. You won’t hear me telling you why you should skip it. It’s just that I never got interested in it; it never pulled me in. Once you get past the hook, the details are conventional cop-movie material.

The movie is set in the aptly named town of Garrison, NJ, right across the bridge from New York City. About thirty NYC cops and their families live in Garrison, away from the crime and the slime of the big city. Most of the cops are crooked, and living in Garrison is just the tip of the iceberg (to be in the NYPD, cops are required to live in New York City; these cops found a loophole).

A deaf ear kept Freddy Heflin (Sylvester Stallone) from joining New York’s Finest, so he became the sheriff of “Cop Land.” In contrast to the cops across the bridge, Freddy’s days are spent retrieving stuffed animals and resolving tiffs between neighbors. For all the policing he does, he could be the sheriff of Bedford Falls.

When the New York cops cover up a case of brutality and murder by bringing their comrade to Garrison, Freddy is faced with a moral dilemma. On the one hand, there is no need to make his own life worse by turning in his neighbors on the force. Besides, these people are his link to his dreams. Hanging out with them is as close as he’ll get to being an NYPD officer. On the other hand, the corruption runs deep, and the leaks in the coverup are being plugged with the bodies of innocent people.

The movie is intellectually engaging, but the “cop” aspect offers nothing that you can’t get on prime time TV. When Robert de Niro as the archetypal “police chief” explodes in frustration, it is so much like every other cop movie that you wonder if director Mangold is poking fun at the genre or just being lazy.

Alas, it is not the former.

The movie takes itself seriously, and it is never lighthearted. Howard Shore’s music sets this tone very well (Shore also composed the haunting score to Crash.) The weighty, ponderous music is at times reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s Cape Fear, and at times it calls to mind the pure dark tones of Philip Glass’ Koyaanisqatsi. The music was very good, but on the other hand, it may have promised more emotion than the rest of the movie actually delivered. It seems wrong to fault a movie for having too good a score, but maybe a better match could have been made.

Much has been said about Sylvester Stallone. He is trying to shed his action-movie persona and get into meatier roles, starting with this one. He isn’t outstanding, but he is better than usual and better than most people are giving him credit for. The most obvious difference in Stallone is not the 20 pounds he gained, but the expression he wears on his face. Instead of a hostile, indifferent scowl, he has a na├»ve, insecure grin.

Stallone is flat, but the role is not exactly dynamic. The character’s dream is to work as a New York City cop, and that dream can never be fulfilled. But instead of setting new goals, Freddy plants himself as close to New York as possible, on the outside looking in, trying to fit in with those whose careers he admires. The character doesn’t know how to give up his youthful dreams, and so is living a self-doubting, came-in-second life. A low-key approach to the character was called for, and Stallone did fine. (Perhaps he found the story to be a parallel to his own career. Maybe some defect kept him out of the New York City, and in the New Jersey, of acting careers.)

It’s possible that Mangold didn’t entirely trust Stallone with the character of Freddy. The dialogue tells us how Freddy went deaf in one ear, but we also see how it happened through flashback. The flashbacks add to Freddy’s character, but they have little to do with the story and they seemed out of place. Maybe Mangold thought Stallone’s Freddy needed some extra depth.

Still, a couple of scenes were very good and deserve to be mentioned. Early on, a young NYPD cop who’s drunk and off-duty, runs two men off the road, killing them. The scene is intercut with Freddy, drunk and off-duty, running into a deer, killing it. Each has accidentally taken an innocent life, and they are equally branded by the same gash across the nose. Another scene that showed some directorial ingenuity is told from Freddy’s aural point of view; we hear what Freddy hears.

I could say a lot of nice things about Cop Land, but I can’t recommend it. The vital spark that pulls you in and makes you care about the movie is missing. Many people really liked this movie, and a few despised it. I just wish I had been that moved, either way.