Friday, 3 August 2012

Cop Land (1997)

Dir. James Mangold
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta 

Almost within touching distance of the skyscrapers of Manhattan sits the New Jersey township of Garrison. For twenty years officers of the NYPD have been buying property over this side of the Hudson river. Now every street houses an off-duty officer and his family. And every morning Sheriff Freddy Heflin (Sylvester Stallone) watches them drive in to New York over the George Washington Bridge. He once dreamed of becoming a cop until he became half-deaf rescuing a local girl from drowning. Now he can only stay behind in Garrison, ticketing speeding drivers and returning lost toys. With all the policemen in residence crime is exceptionally low. He is the “Sheriff of Cop Land. 

This would have been Freddy’s life forever, dealing with petty infringements and buddying up to the condescending New York cops. He dreams of how his life would have been different had he not injured himself saving a life. As he tells Figgsy (Ray Liotta), if he had his time all over again he would not have dived to the rescue. He would have put himself first. It takes an incident on the George Washington Bridge in which two black youths are killed and the off-duty policeman who shot them seemingly commits suicide by leaping into the Hudson to bring the eyes of the NYPD’s internal affairs division over to Garrison. Lt Moe Tilden (Robert De Niro) turns to Freddy for help. He explains that the Garrison officers all bought their land with the help of the Mob; in return the police turn a blind eye to the Mafia’s drug-dealing in their precinct. He wants Freddy to keep an eye on Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel). Freddy refuses to snitch on his friends. 

It takes a surprise run-in with ‘Superboy’ Babitch (Michael Rapaport), the supposedly dead officer, to open Freddy’s eyes. Ray had thought he could protect his nephew, Babitch, but with the scrutiny from IA they can only save themselves by turning up a body. With his friends, colleagues and family now wanting him dead the only person Babitch can turn to is the bumbling half-deaf Freddy. Ray tells Freddy that the best thing he can do is to let them take care of Babitch and turn a blind eye. With his own deputies deserting him and his friends turning against him Freddy has to decide whether he should once again dare to do the right thing. And as Figgsy warns him, “Bein’ right is not a bulletproof vest.” 

Cigarettes: those things can kill you

The last reel of the film then becomes, to all intents and purposes, a Western. Cops may get all the glory these days but there is something deeply ingrained into the American psyche about the role of the Sheriff, the good man trying to bring law to a lawless territory. Despite the number of policemen living in Garrison the town essentially operates outside the normal rule of law. “What you’ve got here, Sheriff,” Tilden had earlier told him, “is a town that scares the shit out of certain people.” And so it falls to the sheriff to do the right thing. He has to get Babitch out of the station house and over to New York. And his enemies know his route and what time he will be taking it. More than anything it reminded me of the ending of 3:10 to Yuma. And this was before I twigged that both the remake of Yuma and Cop Land were both directed by James Mangold. Freddy does the decent and honourable thing, even though he knows that he is risking everything to do so. 

In Cop Land the police are self-interested and corrupt. They take Mob money, they cheat on their wives, they snort coke and run insurance scams, they silence people who could reveal their secrets. Yet they are capable of extreme heroism in the line of duty, as shown with the case of Joey Randone (Peter Berg). IA are little better. They bully and swagger and can be spiteful when things do not go their way. These attitudes infect the Sheriff’s department across the Hudson. Cops are let off speeding tickets; instead it looks like black out-of-towners are targeted instead. The entire edifice is built upon lawmen scratching each others’ backs and looking the other way. In such conditions corruption thrives. 

Cop Land is a well constructed and atmospheric piece. It has, perhaps, too many characters and can get too dense at times, but it is well crafted. It is helped by a stellar cast. Stallone himself does a mega turn as the chunky slow-moving simple sheriff. Until the last few minutes Freddy is a long way from the Rockys and Rambos with whom Stallone made his name. Harvey Keitel is Harvey Keitel, seemingly friendly but with no trace of love in his cold eyes. De Niro rocks a tash. The one cast member who is wasted is Janeane Garofalo as new deputy Cindy. She only appears in three scenes if that. But otherwise everyone plays their part to show that something is rotten in the state of New York, and this rottenness extends to behind the white picket fences of New Jersey suburbia. 

What have I learnt about New Jersey?
It is amazing that so close to Manhattan there are trees and woods and deer running wild on country roads. New Jersey, even in the built up areas close to NYC, seems a complete world away from New York’s urban environment. The crime levels and responses to it are different too. NYC needs a dense tightly-knit crew of policemen to deal with shootings and drugs; Garrison has a sheriff’s department of three to stop speeders and resolve neighbourhood disputes. Though, as portrayed in the film, the crime levels are so low in Garrison because the town is packed with policemen and their families and the Mafia are looking out for them. 

The film is fiction however. Officers of the NYPD are not allowed to live outside of the state of New York. In the film Ray’s guys have found a dodge by getting themselves declared auxiliary transit cops. In real life, as the credits at the end explain, no NYPD officers can live in New Jersey. 

Can we go there?
Garrison does not exist. Filming took place in Edgewater, New Jersey, which is located on the west (Jersey) shore of the Hudson River. Veteran’s Field was used for the 4th July carnival scene. The Sheriff’s department is actually Edgewater’s public water and electric works building. The skyscrapers of Manhattan - notably more than could be seen 43 years earlier in On the Waterfront - can be seen across the Hudson. The two are linked, as shown in the film, by the George Washington Bridge. The shooting scene was filmed on the lower level. The other bridge seen in the film (the one where the young Freddy dives to the rescue) is located in Teaneck, New Jersey. 

Overall Rating: 4/5

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