Back in the 1990s, indie-produced films – significantly, those made by Miramax – were challenging the Hollywood supreme. The biggest and best is example is undoubtedly, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction from 1994. Three years later, however, post-prime action star, Sylvester Stallone, landed in Miramax’s Cop Land, in another attempt at revitalising his career.
In the years leading up to Cop Land, Stallone tried to have successful combats different genres in attempt to refresh his career, however, these ‘alternate’ films were failures – said films were the comedies Oscar (1991) and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (1992). Sadly for Stallone, he couldn’t follow the footsteps of his colleagues in terms of success, as his rival-turned-friend, Arnold Schwarzenegger, made successful genre transitions only a few years prior with the comedies Twins (1988) and Kindergarten Cop (1990), and the sci-fi action hybrid, Total Recall (1990), and furthermore, fellow action superstar, Bruce Willis, whose film legacy began with the timeless action hit, Die Hard (1988), had successful transitions in the 1990s with comedy in Death Becomes Her (1992), then black-comedy crime hybrid in Pulp Fiction, and sci-fi in Twelve Monkeys (1995) and The Fifth Element (1997). The opportunity for Stallone to try another genre transition came when future Logan director, James Mangold, was hired to write and direct a new ensemble cast crime film, which was expected by some to be the new Pulp Fiction – that film would be Cop Land.
Cop Land presents the story of a half-deaf sheriff, Freddy Heflin (Stallone), caught in the middle of a developing issue involving corrupt NYC cops, living in the small New Jersey town of Garrison. The issue involves the hiding of Officer Murray Babitch (Michael Rapaport), who jumps off the George Washington Bridge into a river after he shoots and kills two unarmed black men after a short road rage. At the crime scene, Murray’s friends, Lt. Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel) and Officer Jack Rucker (Robert Patrick), engage in corrupt activities – Ray pretends that Murray has jumped into the river, whilst Jack plants a gun in the victims’ car, then claims that he’s found the gun belonging to the deceased – a black paramedic also at the crime scene challenges Jack’s gun claim, resulting in the bogus evidence chucked into the river and a mini fight breakout. This pivotal scene in Cop Land establishes both the corruption and racism within the NYPD, varying across different ranking officers.
Meanwhile, the first presentation of Stallone in Cop Land is within a quiet bar, late at night, where he is drunk, playing a pinball arcade game in the background of a conversation between Ray Liotta’s Officer Gary Figgis and Edie Falco’s Berta. Freddy/Stallone exits the bar to get quarters (25 cents coins) from a parking meter – off-duty too, he is wearing un-cool clothing inclusive of stonewash jeans and flip-flops. Gary convinces the off-duty sheriff to go home, of which Freddy does, and then the viewer is immediately presented with Freddy waking up in the morning, sporting an over-exposed bloating in his stomach region – essentially, a beer gut. Notably, Stallone gained 40 pounds for his Cop Land role.
This presentation of Stallone in Cop Land is far from the spectacle that audiences were used to seeing. From the ripped physique in the Rocky and Rambo franchises to, essentially, an over-the-hill disabled (deaf ear) sheriff, thus the presentation of Stallone in Cop Land certainly contained an amount of shock value. The significance of Freddy’s disability in Cop Land is that it is what has prevented him from being a police officer – an occupation of which he idolises, but is also fuelled with corruption, of which in Cop Land, he is exposed to like never before. The concept of Stallone portraying a character with a disability or significant limitation in Cop Land refers back to his early Rocky films and first Rambo film – remember when he couldn’t read in Rocky II (1979) and was overwhelmingly suffering from PTSD in First Blood (1982)?
Stallone’s non-conventional performance in Cop Land was in receipt of critical praise from the likes of Peter Travers and Mick LaSalle in Rolling Stone and San Francisco Chronicle respectively, whilst the Stockholm Film Festival awarded Stallone the Best Actor award. Despite praises here and there, Cop Land was not the next Pulp Fiction. Financially, Cop Land grossed $63 million worldwide, whereas Pulp Fiction grossed $212 million worldwide. Of course, with a budget of $15 million, Cop Land was a financial success, but not what was expected and demanded from Miramax.
In terms of star performance, Cop Land is 3rd best behind only Rocky (1976) and First Blood in the career of Stallone (until 2015’s Creed, obviously). Because of failing financial expectations and creating a sense of confusion as to whether Stallone would ditch action roles for the foreseeable future or not, the actor retrospectively stated that he experienced trouble getting roles (or decent ones) for the next eight years until bringing back the Rocky Balboa character in Rocky Balboa (2006), which subsequently led to a fourth Rambo film in 2008, and then the ensemble action cast franchise of The Expendables beginning in 2010.
Ultimately, despite a very fine presentation of Stallone’s acting skills for the first time since First Blood, and in a profitable film, Cop Land was a failed comeback for Stallone. With the subsequent roles and films that followed, Cop Land was arguably more of a “thank you and goodbye” to an actor showing glimpses of the talent and skills shown 20 years earlier in the original Rocky.
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