Sylvester Stallone put on 40 pounds to play Nowheresville, N.J., sheriff Freddy Heflin in Cop Land, but the big deal isn't his gut — it's his acting. There's no flab in his portrayal of a deaf, dull-witted lawman — Freddy is a sweet slug — who rediscovers his moral conscience. Branching out in a bold new direction, Stallone is quietly devastating. James Mangold has directed Cop Land from his own ardent, audacious script, and despite some draggy, overdeliberate moments, it's the strongest piece of material to come Stallone's way since he invented himself as Rocky 21 years ago.
Freddy has been dragging his ass for years now. His town, Garrison — pop. 1,280 — is run by Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel) and the other New York cops who have settled there with their families. To Freddy, these are "the good guys." He wears blinders when it comes to their lawbreaking and mob dealings. The young Freddy wanted to be in the NYPD. Then, Liz (Annabella Sciorra), the girl he secretly loves, crashed her car into a lake, and Freddy had to slam his head against the car window to break it and pull her out. The loss of hearing in one ear kept Freddy off the force. The loss of Liz hurt more; she married Joey Randone (Peter Berg), a cop who works the mean streets across the Hudson River. The Manhattan skyline visible from Garrison is a constant reminder of broken dreams for Freddy, who spends his days busting litterers and his nights boozing and bingeing. Moe Tilden (Robert De Niro), the internal-affairs officer out to get the goods on Cop Land, correctly pegs Freddy as "a man looking for something to do."
The description also fits Stallone. His brand of rehashed action (Assassins, The Specialist) has grown awfully tired. Not just to us — to him, too: Watch him sleepwalk through Daylight. The man who would be king of more than Rocky and Rambo flicks has tried comedy in Oscar, sci-fi in Judge Dredd and even singing in Rhinestone — all with disastrous results. Now, at 51, Stallone delivers on his courage to dare.
Don't make too much of the fact that Stallone is working for chump change on an indie film — Miramax's $20 million budget is his usual salary — from a director with only one previous feature credit (the cult hit Heavy, also about an overweight loner) and with acting titans who could wipe him off the screen. Look, it worked for John Travolta in Pulp Fiction. What's astonishing is Stallone's subtly reactive performance. He anchors Mangold's remarkable film in character instead of bang-bang. Until the final gunfight, expertly shot by Eric Edwards and edited by Craig McKay in the classic western style of High Noon, Freddy is an observer of life, not a participant in it.
Stallone's role in Cop Land is far from the showiest. Keitel's Ray exudes dangerous energy. He cares for his own as long as they don't cross him — that goes for his cheating wife (a smoldering Cathy Moriarty), his hero-cop nephew (the excellent Michael Rapaport) and a dumb sheriff who thinks he has the balls to play Serpico. Robert Patrick brings sly menace to Rucker, Ray's henchman. Ray Liotta tears into his best role since Good-Fellas as Gary Figgis, a tainted cop who sides with Freddy. And De Niro makes his internal-affairs agitator a mesmerizing mix of principle and compromise. Each actor, from Janeane Garofalo as Freddy's fed-up deputy to Jake Zimet as a sassy street kid, fires up the plot.
Only Stallone hangs back, letting us survey this microcosm of civic and personal corruption through Freddy's gradually opening eyes. His performance builds slowly but achieves a stunning payoff when Freddy decides to clean up his town. Mangold, working on a broad canvas similar to John Sayles' City of Hope, has a rare talent for finding the human drama in ordinary lives. Freddy awakes to his own potential, and it's exhilarating to watch the character and the actor revive in unison. Nearly down for the count in the movie ring, Stallone isn't just back in the fight. He's a winner.