Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Writer-director James Mangold’s literate, old-fashioned crime saga “Copland,” (*** OUT OF ****) starring Sylvester Stallone, takes itself far too seriously to any fun. You should know by now that the Italian stallion gained some forty pounds for the role of the slow-witted but amiable small-town New Jersey sheriff. Indeed, watching “Copland” is like watching “Rocky” armed with a badge and a gun. Whereas “Rocky” brimmed with surprises, “Copland” springs few surprises. Mangold trots out his oddball characters, turns them loose on each other, and allows audiences to eavesdrop on the ensuing chaos. Moreover, Mangold has modeled his parable of justice clearly on the oft-told tale of the tortoise and the hare.
“Copland” takes its title from the sleepy New Jersey hamlet of Garrison just over the river from New York City. A precinct of N.Y.P.D. cops pulls duty as auxiliary transit police, so they can live outside the city. Ray (Harvey Keitel) and his fellow policemen take Mafia payoffs so they can afford to live out of state without attracting undue attention. Ray has set up a patsy to be the sheriff of Garrison. Freddy Heflin (Stallone) lost his hearing in one ear when he rescued a drowning woman. The car she was driving crashed off a bridge and sank to the bottom of a river. Freddie swam into the vehicle and lost his hearing getting her out of the car. Freddy had always dreamed of a career in the N.Y.P.D., but his deaf ear prevents him from joining the force. Along comes sneaky Ray who happily obliges, and makes Freddy a sheriff, the closest he can come to being a cop.

Ten years pass, and things take a turn for the worst. A young, highly decorated cop (Michael Rapaport) guns down two crack-smoking black youths. They side-swipe his car on the George Washington bridge. One of them pulls what appears to be a weapon on him, and the cop shoots them. Turns out that the weapon was a steering column lock. When the dirty cop Robert Patrick plants a gun on the dead kids, an irate EMT protests and hurls the machine gun into the river. The young cop freaks out and jumps off the bridge. At least, that’s the story that Ray manufactures. He smuggles the kid off the bridge in the trunk of his car, but Ray’s troubles have only just beginning.

When the dirty cops initially move the kid, Heflin and his patrol partner Cindy (Janeane Garofalo) stop them for speeding. Freddy lets them go, but catches a glimpse of the kid peering up over the backseat. The newspapers play up the young cop’s suicide, but his body never washes up. A lavish funeral is held, with his uniform buried in the casket. Later at Ray’s house that evening, the dirty cops toss the kid a send-off party. Ray’s frumpy wife (Cathy Moriarty) warns the kid before her husband and his cold-blooded pals can drown him in his backyard pool. Eventually, Freddy tracks down the kid to his clever hideout. Both of Freddy’s deputies bail out on him when he takes the kid into custody. Ray and his thugs show up, overpower Freddy, and grab the kid. They fire a gun near Freddy’s ear, and he grovels in pain while they careen off. Retrieving his shotgun, Freddy stumbles down to Ray’s house for a blood splattering shoot-out.

Writer-director James Mangold has penned a hard-hitting but ultimately routine morality play. You won’t find glamorous heroes, voluptuous heroines, multiple fireball explosions, death-defying stunts or awesome special effects here to dazzle you. “Copland” belongs to the lone-man-against-the-system genre, prominently featured in westerns from 1950s such as “High Noon” and “3:10 to Yuma.” Symbolically, Garrison, New Jersey lies across the river from New York, the same way the Rio Grande separates Texas from Mexico in westerns. A day doesn’t pass when Freddy Heflin doesn’t stare across the river at the promise that New York holds. Freddy will never realize his dreams, but that doesn’t keep him from dreaming. Hey, break out F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby if you prefer literary comparisons. Impassable barriers and borders and destinations that never materialize crisscross the moral universe of “Copland.” Everybody in “Copland” is trapped in a moral universe that makes no exceptions for looks, money, or power.

Sadly, the Mangold script trudges out the prefabricated regimen of those 1950s films. Although “Copland” has a storyline of considerable depth, Mangold directs it without generating any sense of either rhythm or hope. You don’t so much watch “Copland” as you witness its events with its oppressive “Silence of the Lambs” atmosphere. Of course, the block-headed Stallone sheriff will redeem himself before fadeout and vanquish the slimy villains, but his heroics will take a toll. “Copland” is about as straight-forward and inexorable as an episode of the classic TV series “Dragnet.” Nevertheless, “Copland” paints a bold portrait of an urban jungle of evil. Ray and his corrupt fellow cops will stoop to murder to protect their safety. The cabal that these cops form is worthy of a Shakespearian conspiracy. Suddenly, Ray’s hand-picked dupe of a sheriff awakes to a sense of law and order. Freddy realizes that if he cannot be a genuine cop, he can at least be an honest one, and he challenges Ray and his cronies.

The Freddy Heflin part is a long awaited and welcome change of pace for action hero Sylvester Stallone. The pot-belly he parades around with conspicuously parked on his gun belt resembles the shell that a turtle lugs around on his back. Sly wears a dazed expression throughout “Copland” that reminds you of a young Robert Mitchum. In any other movie, a character like Freddy would linger on the periphery and rarely attract attention. Although Stallone’s Freddy is the chief protagonist, he is the less ostentatious cop in the movie. Nothing about Freddy qualifies as cool. He is as out of date as his cloddish shoes, his white socks, and his vinyl records.

Director James Mangold and Stallone emphasize Freddy’s awkward physical nature. The first time we meet Freddy, he is drunk playing pin ball. After his coins run out, he stumbles outside and breaks into a parking meter. Later, as he drives home, a deer bursts across the road in front of him. Sluggishly, Freddy swerves off the asphalt and crashes his prowl car. He walks through the next couple of scenes looking pathetic with band aids stuck across his nose. During the final showdown at Ray’s house, Freddy handles his guns like a rookie instead of a nimble action hero.
Freddy is far from a genius, and he clumps along like the turtle. But like Rocky, Freddy is in the game for the long haul. When Internal Affairs throws in the towel and refuses to hear Freddy’s confession, the sheriff sets out to straighten things out himself. Stallone seems to enjoy re-establishing his gone to seed character every time he crosses in front of the cameras and positions his paunch near the lens. Unlike Rocky, Freddy is at a dead end. He has nowhere to go, and he doesn’t even have a girlfriend, not the kind of hero that Stallone has played in ages. Certainly not the kind of hero that impressionable audiences seek to imitate.

A fine supporting cast that includes actors Harvey (“Bad Lieutenant”) Keitel, Robert (“The Fan”) De Niro, and Ray (“Turbulence”) Liotta, Robert (“Terminator 2”) Patrick, and John (“The Rock”) Spencer bolsters “Copland.” You’re almost tempered to ignore the plot and enjoy their eloquent performances. Harvey Keitel brings a contemplative viciousness to his villainous cop. Keitel’s Ray is an organizer, a man who keeps the lid on, and makes sure nothing untoward happens. Ray is the hare of the story. Not only does he think of himself smarter that Freddy but also above the law. Meanwhile, Robert De Niro plays the frustrated Internal Affairs investigator who jogs Freddy’s memory about the meaning of the law. Ray Liotta is cast as Figgis, an undercover cop, who’s just collected a bundle of insurance money from a fire he set in his own house. He becomes Freddy’s closet friend and takes sides with Freddy when Ray’s henchmen get the drop on him. Patrick and Spencer are two of Ray’s corrupt minions who are willing to kill even one of their own if he threatens him. Michael Rapaport plays the young cop who finds himself hiding from the law.

Hypnotic performances, especially from Stallone, a solid but lugubrious story, and a sense of the inevitable make an offbeat policer like “Copland” worth watching despite its dreary pacing and predictable approach. Ironically, this is a Stallone picture where his performance is more interesting than the story.

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