The other day a bunch of my friends and I were talking about our favorite Action stars (yes, we’re geeks and this is what we sit around talking about), and eventually we got to the question of which star we actually thought was the best actor. Now all we were considering were the big guns from the ‘80’s and early 90’s. This illustrious group consisted of names like Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme (who’s membership in this group was questioned more than once), and Bruce Willis. The discussion went on for a while, but a consensus was never really met.
Now, of course the first named removed was Van Damme’s, whose inclusion on this list was tentative to start with. Karate masters Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal were both voted out next because, let’s face it, at their best each did a great job of playing completely unstoppable versions of Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal. Schwarzenegger held on longer because he is quite excellent in the right circumstance, most notably when that circumstance involves him playing a cyborg with no emotions; anything else tends to stretch his acting talents to the limit.
This left us with only two; Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone. This is where the stalemate set in. Now looking at the two actors, you would think this was a slam dunk for Willis. The guy has absolutely shined at times during his dramatic work, especially in understated performances in films by M. Night Shyamalan, Terry Gilliam, and Quentin Tarantino. Stallone on the other hand, doesn’t exactly receive great recognition for his work while shooting M60 machine guns at villains or defeating communism in the middle of a boxing ring.
Then again, Stallone does have a trump card; an Academy Award Nomination for Best Actor. This is something that Willis, not to mention anyone else on this list, has never been able to achieve. You could make the argument that the nomination was for Rocky, but Stallone also managed to make one of the most iconic heroes of the big screen. His work in First Blood is also first rate for the most part, which again adds merit to his case. Where Stallone begins to lose credibility is in the period after First Blood. The two immediate Rambo sequels, Cobra, Rocky V, Cliffhanger, Daylight, Stop or my Mom will Shoot, and many others all seemed to hurt Stallone in this category, and many of these even helped lead to the star’s decline in popularity to the point where he was before his current comeback attempts with Rocky Balboa and Rambo.
On the other hand though, there’s still Cop Land. Now it’s easy to look at Cop Land as a failure for the actor, as it seemed to put an end to his Action star status, and sort of branded him as box office poison, despite some glowing reviews from some prominent critics. Looking at the picture now, distanced from its initial release, you see a film and an actor that were horribly undervalued and unappreciated, when it should have awakened audiences and critics to a Stallone that was trying to stretch himself and his career. We weren’t ready to give him a chance then, and because of it we had to wait for his latest comeback in order to finally get the former megastar back into theaters.
Copland Starring Sylvester Stallone, Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, and Ray Liotta. Directed by James Mangold
It’s amazing what a difference a decade can make on a movie. Upon its release, Cop Land was sold as another film in a line of 90’s new wave classics that Miramax studios kept churning out at the time, much like it had done with Trainspotting and Pulp Fiction. This was really unfortunate for the movie, because the film that audiences saw wasn’t really like the flashy film that Miramax sold it as, instead it was a slow-paced character piece, at once resembling a 70’s Crime Drama and a type of modern Western. In 2007, James Mangold would basically cover much of the same material again in an actual Western with 3:10 to Yuma, a movie that would be embraced and credited with reviving the genre.
Looking at the film from this perspective now though, the movie contains at least eight people who would go on to appear in The Sopranos, two stars from Goodfellas, one of the Reservoir Dogs, one West Wing Chief of Staff, one cop from Collateral, one of the survivors from Deep Blue Sea, and of course, the star of four Rambo films and six Rocky pictures. If you made this film now you’d have to call it Bad Asses: The Movie. This is an absolutely terrific cast, and the best thing about watching this flick now is the satisfaction in knowing that the movie is worthy of them, a lot of that credit going to Stallone.
It really is a huge shame that Cop Land
ended up being such a detriment to Stallone’s career, because to watch him here, especially against his Action output at the time in films like Daylight
, the quality output isn’t even close. Packing on 40 pounds to play Sheriff Freddy Heflin, the lawman of Garrison, New Jersey, Stallone reminds me of why we loved him in the first place. This isn’t the rock hard, man of iron whose biceps defeated the Soviet Union over and over or destroyed opponents in arm-wrestling tournaments. This is the lovable schlub that gets nervous when he’s talking to women, and he’s completely timid around the men that he idolizes.
This is the Stallone we can identify with, unless for some reason you are a super assassin, shell shocked Vietnam vet, no nonsense cop, expert climber, arm wrestling champion, or Heavy Weight Boxing Title holder, and old Sly knows how to tug at our heart strings. Freddy is a man that’s really on easy street in a lot of ways. His town is compromised mostly of NYPD Police Officers, so there’s really not much for him to do except catch speeders and break up any local scuffle that might bust out.
On the surface everything is just fine, but there’s real hurt underneath. The most noble thing Freddy’s ever done in his life, saving life-long crush Liz Randone (Annabella Sciorra) from a watery death in a car accident, cost him his hearing in one ear. That deaf ear kept him out of the NYPD, and to make matters worse, Liz ended up marrying Joey (Peter Berg), another one of New York’s finest, but a real scumbag at home. So instead, Freddy just minds the home-front as the boys in blue take for granted that they live out his dream every day.
Again, I can’t say enough about Stallone here. It’s weird watching Stallone as a guy who will instantly shy away from confrontation and get puppy dog eyes in front of the woman he yearns for. Watch the scene in which he and Annabella Sciorra’s Liz have a heart to heart in the middle of the flick. With Bruce Springsteen’s “Stolen Car” playing in the background, the scene absolutely tears your heart out, and for a second you can really see the actor that Stallone could have become if he hadn’t become the muscled demigod he became in the 1980’s.
Nearly every time you think Freddy has a shot at finally shaking up all the corruption in his town, he just decides to let things go. In a lot of ways, his deaf ear represents the blind eye he’s been turning in this town all these years, but when things finally start to go down, we get to see what he’s really made of. Director James Mangold just makes you wait and earn it.
I think the biggest reason that Cop Land didn’t become what The Sixth Sense became for Bruce Willis was that Willis didn’t have to spend his break out dramatic roles acting against Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta and Harvey Keitel. Each of these guys show exactly why Martin Scorsese picked them for headliners in Goodfellas and Mean Streets here, each getting incredible opportunities to chew up scenery. Next to Stallone’s soft spoken Sheriff, all of these performances could be seen as superior on the surface, but big speeches aren’t what Freddy’s all about.
That’s not to say that these guys aren’t putting in prime work here. Keitel’s Ray Donlan is the man that really runs the town, backed by the mob so he could get all his goons in line and as close to him as possible. It’s Ray’s cop nephew, Murray (Michael Rapaport), who could accidentally bring Ray’s kingdom down. After a possible wrongful death on the job, Murray apparently committed suicide, but no body is ever found. This gets the attention of Internal Affairs officer Lt. Moe Tilden (De Niro) and opens up old wounds with Undercover cop Gary ‘Figgsy’ Figgis (Liotta). Like I said each does great work here, and after the battle lines are drawn, Freddy’s the only one who decides to stand up and do what’s right for himself and his town.
You get terrific work from all these guys, Liotta actually being my favorite of the bunch. His Figgsy is a tormented man, a dirty cop who is tired of the lifestyle and wants to get out as fast as he can. He tries to take care of Freddy like a big brother, but he knows it’s a bit of a lost cause. I really think Liotta’s an actor that is absolutely fantastic in the right role, and I think Figgsy represents his best work since Goodfellas. The man just has so much intensity, and is completely a guy you’d probably root for in another movie.
Surprisingly James Mangold, in only his second effort behind a camera, was able to wrangle all of these storylines and characters brilliantly. Everybody here gets just enough screen time, and Mangold’s modern Western comes off without a hitch. We even get an awesomely choreographed gun fight at picture’s end, as finally fed up, we see Freddy go it alone, Gary Cooper-style, in a nearly soundless epic battle.
I’m sure this experience would influence Mangold’s later work on 3:10 to Yuma
, and though that film’s big moments may be much bigger, I think I almost prefer the intimacy of this film. Both film’s show a sure-handed director with an obvious love for frontier dramas, the one in Cop Land
just happens to be in New Jersey instead of the bad lands of the old West. Both stories still rely on a big actor putting out very understated work as an everyman; both end up being the heart of their movie and doing some of the best acting work of their career. Stallone should be proud of his work here, and should look back with the same fondness for this movie that I do.