Film: Stallone Stages a Comeback

PUBLISHED ON

October 1, 1997

Sylvester Stallone probably will be nominated for an Academy Award next year. You’re saying, sure, and Andrew Greeley will join Opus Dei come Christmas. But seeing the man’s iconoclastic performance in Cop Land is believing. He’s that good.

Stallone is one of the wealthiest and most recognizable figures in Hollywood, but prior to Cop Land, writer-director James Mangold’s finely detailed parable of police corruption in the Jersey suburbs, the actor had only one worthy performance to his credit: Rocky Balboa—and that was more than twenty years ago. Since then, Stallone traded Rocky’s brutish humanity for the brutish inhumanity of Rambo and numerous other overmuscled, stereotypical action roles (with a couple of especially clumsy forays into intentional comedy, none of which were as funny as his slurring, steroidal lunks). He got no respect from critics, but built quite a following at the box office during the 80s, with moviegoers responding to the brash, cartoonish machismo of the sort defined and epitomized by Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Times change, though, and action fans now prefer quirkier, more complex leading men. Pure physicality no longer suffices, and the Stallones and Schwarzeneggers have lost audiences to the Nicolas Cages, the John Travoltas, and even the Will Smiths. With Stallone’s advancing age—he’s fifty-one—and declining box-office popularity, he decided it was time to reinvent himself. With Cop Land, he says goodbye to vanity, piling thirty-nine pounds onto his chiseled frame in order to play Sheriff Freddy Heflin, a pathetically unheroic hero. The paunch and puffy face force Stallone to exercise a part of himself that long ago atrophied from lack of use: his acting muscles.

Freddy is the law in Garrison, New Jersey, but in name only. The fictional town lies across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan. It was built by New York City police officers wanting a safe, secure place to live and raise their families. These cops run the town like a personal bailiwick, paying no attention to the traffic laws or any other regulation that doesn’t suit them. Freddy acquiesces without complaint, because he worships these guys. He once dreamed of being a New York cop, but that all changed when, as a young man, he saw a car plunge off a bridge and saved the girl inside from drowning. The heroic deed cost him hearing in one ear, and the disability cost him a chance to join the force. He has lived his professional life as a virtual rent-a-cop, emasculated by infirmity and disappointment, a pliant servant to the men who work in the city whose skyline rises across the river as a constant taunt.

Cop Land begins with one of these lawmen, Babitch (Michael Rapaport), involved in a shootout on the GWB. When it becomes apparent that Babitch has killed two kids over a misunderstanding, it looks as if he will end up disgraced and in jail. His buddies come to his rescue, trying to plant a gun in the victims’ car to make the killings look like self-defense, but when that ploy fails, Officer Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel) stages Babitch’s suicide. He tells the others that the young cop has jumped into the river. Later, Donlan and the others smuggle Babitch into Garrison.

Freddy discovers their ruse early on, but doesn’t want to get involved. Donlan and the rest of his crooked crew know they don’t have to worry about the sheriff: Freddy knows his place. But an irascible Internal Affairs investigator (Robert De Niro), who comes to town to look around, suspects Freddy knows more than he’s letting on, and impugns the sheriff’s manhood and professionalism. It’s his way of goading the sheriff into standing up for what’s right.

Whether Keitel and his bunch finally will be caught is not nearly as interesting as the drama going on within Freddy. Stallone is perfectly cast here, precisely because he’s well-known to us as a powerful man of action. Everything about him in Cop Land is the opposite, and that familiar image of the actor helps deepen his character here. Freddy used to be brave and strong, but he lost it along the way. His slack belly, sloped shoulders, and downcast eyes betray a weighty psychic burden. This simple, good man learned early on that life can be terribly unfair, and his spirit has sagged under that weight ever since.

In one heartbreaking scene, gentle Freddy speaks privately with Liz (Annabella Sciorra), the woman he saved from the car years ago. She fell in love with one of Donlan’s cops (Peter Berg), an unfaithful, hateful jerk who abuses her. Freddy wants to protect Liz, who sees the faint light from the torch he carries for her, hidden away under his shyness and corpulence. As a mournful Bruce Springsteen song plays on his turntable, Liz asks Freddy why he never married. “All the good girls were taken,” he mumbles plaintively. Stallone’s eyes are so filled with muted pain we can barely meet his gaze.

Writer-director Mangold has been here before. His 1996 independent feature debut, Heavy, explored the psyche of a fat, timid short-order chef in love with a willowy waitress who deserved better than the cocky boyfriend she had.

Mangold’s finely detailed direction dwells on minutiae—the darting eyes, the shambling gait—and on the meaningful spaces between lines of dialogue. It’s a pity that Cop Land‘s climax isn’t more intricately plotted; Ray Liotta’s character, a former Donlan intimate tempted to go straight, leads us to expect more than the film delivers. But Mangold has drawn such an arresting performance from such an unlikely source, who more than holds his own against some of the best actors around, that you hardly wish to complain. What the director has done, really, is draw a wellspring from a rock, and the very real possibility of Sylvester Stallone winning Best Actor next year would only confirm the miracle.

Cop Land comes at the end of an especially loud, especially disappointing summer film season. Those of us who review movies professionally have to screen between three and five films each week during the summer, and it’s all but impossible to avoid grading on the curve.

Case in point: Contact. The reviews of that slick sci-fi drama ranged from favorable to absolute raves. The film concerns a scientist, played crisply by Jodie Foster, who discovers proof of intelligent extraterrestrial life, and her encounter with it calls her dogmatic faith in scientism into question. Critics, myself included, were so pleased to happen upon a movie about ideas—an oasis in the summer wasteland—that we gave credit where it was not deserved. In retrospect, the film, while undeniably entertaining (an uncommon virtue, mind you), was about as intellectually middlebrow as they come. Yet audiences are so unaccustomed to having their minds engaged by movies nowadays that it’s easy to watch Contact and think you’ve really seen something brainy.

For the religious believer accustomed to seeing faith denigrated by Hollywood, Contact proved initially appealing because it maintained that science does not have the final word, and that religion has a role to play in any honest quest for capital “T” Truth. The problem is that director Robert Zemeckis—who, in a New York Times interview this summer, distanced himself from the Catholicism of his childhood—chose to revise the religious viewpoint the late Carl Sagan wrote into his 1985 novel, on which the film was based. In the Sagan book, the man of faith was an evangelical Christian intellectual. In the Zemeckis version, he’s Palmer Joss, a young, airy New Ager with a libido and, somehow, access to the highest levels of power in the U.S. government.

Joss, played by a miscast Matthew McConaughey, prattles on about the need to recognize the spiritual dimension to our lives and the search for knowledge, but he’s not discriminating about his religion. Any vague deism will do, it seems, and Zemeckis’s failure to ground this character in a particular faith—Jewish, Protestant, or Catholic—robs the drama of satisfactory depth. Contact, the film, flatters the lazy, comfortably secular audience by giving them just enough of the fuzzy God stuff to send them forth feeling vaguely “spiritual,” without demanding that they do much more than entertain the kind of notions most of us toy with in freshman-dorm bull sessions. It’s full of cheap grace and empty calories, basically, and I feel kind of foolish to have been taken in.

Aside from Cop Land and the splendid Shall We Dance? there is only one summer movie worth seeing a second time. My Best Friend’s Wedding, the Julia Roberts romantic comedy that’s become an unexpected smash hit, was not a great movie by any stretch, but Australian director P.J. Hogan (Muriel’s Wedding) decorated the film with such a fresh and alluring sense of gaiety that its shortcomings fade against the feel-good glow the film generously imparts. Roberts, in a welcome return to form, plays a smarty-pants whose best friend, a guy, is about to marry another woman. The impending nuptials make Roberts realize how much she really loves the big lug, and she sets out for the wedding determined to steal the groom for herself.

But she fails amusingly with each and every nutball scheme, which undermines our expectations both of the genre and of Julia Roberts. The English actor Rupert Everett turns up as Roberts’s gay friend; ironically, these two have the most potent screen chemistry of any male-female pair in ages, and the stylish, hilarious Everett manages both to steal every scene away from Roberts and, paradoxically, to make her look fantastic. The movie ends with a surprising affirmation of fidelity, with the idea that in love, you have to be true to the one to whom you’ve pledged your faith, even if that person isn’t necessarily the best match.

Author

  • Rod Dreher

    Rod Dreher (born 1967) is an American writer and editor. He was a conservative editorial writer and a columnist for The Dallas Morning News, but departed that newspaper in late 2009 to affiliate with the John Templeton Foundation. He has also contributed in the past to The American Conservative and National Review. He wrote a blog previously called "Crunchy Con" at beliefnet.com, then simply called "Rod Dreher" with an emphasis on cultural rather than political topics.

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