Stallone attempts to reinvent himself in James Mangold’s all-star crime thriller
Stallone or Schwarzenegger? Every once in a while that age-old question re-emerges, but back in the early 90s such musings were much more ubiquitous. Today it’s the Stathams, the Johnsons, even the Scarlett Johanssons who warrant such debates, Arnie and Stallone little more than relics receiving the odd nostalgic pop and mainly relying on past glories. Stallone would even create ‘The Expendables’, a self-aware franchise which opened up a cinematic canvas for past headliners, the likes of Jean Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren dusting themselves off for one more round with the big time. The only name missing from an almost inexhaustible roster of former action stars is Steven Seagal. Word is he’s not very popular among Hollywood’s aging action elite.
For Stallone and Schwarzenegger popularity was never a problem — you just had to pick your poison. Personally, I was always an Arnie kid. Stallone was a close second based on output alone, but Schwarzenegger was truly larger than life with an almost intangible charisma, delivering acerbic one-liners with such banal profundity he made them his trademark — a considerable feat in an industry saturated with like-for-like stars catering to like-for-like formulas. Stallone had the Rambo and Rocky franchises, and I got a kick out of the likes of Cobra, Lock Up and Demolition Man, but I was all about The Terminator, Predator and Total Recall. I was even obsessed with the star’s second-tier vehicles, VHS tapes of Commando and The Running Man worn to a barely workable thread in the clunky mechanics of our family VCR. For me, Stallone was a pale imitation of his biggest rival, and there was nothing you could say or do to change my mind.
In reality, Stallone was the true progenitor of the modern Hollywood action hero. In fact, he swamped a late-to-the-party Schwarzenegger at the box office during the 1980s, raking in a whopping $1.58 billion to Arnie’s $656.9 million. Sure, he headlined one more movie, two if you discount Arnie’s 1980 bodybuilding documentary The Comeback, a film so low-key box office becomes irrelevant, but Stallone was far and away the biggest draw for much of the decade. In Rocky and Rambo he forged iconic Hollywood characters with seemingly inexhaustible lifespans, the kind who are still bringing it to the table almost half a century later, and Stallone wasn’t just the face on the marquee, he was involved on a much more fundamental level, giving First Blood the commercial edge it needed and even bagging two Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Screenplay for Rocky.
As the decade grew so did Arnie’s stock, the star ending the period with a particularly loud bang. With Lock Up ($22,000,000) and Tango and Cash ($120,400,000) released within a few months of each other, Sly ended 1989 with a combined $144,400,000, but with Twins Arnie drew $216,600,000 for a single movie, by far his biggest box office to date. This triggered a brand new trend, Arnie continuing to pull away from his bitter rival as Stallone struggled to adapt. If the 80s belonged to Sly, then the 90s certainly belonged to Schwarzenegger. “[Arnie and I] had a violent hatred,” Stallone would admit in a 2013 interview with the Guardian. “Have you ever had that, ever? Competition where you really had an arch enemy that kind of brings out the best in you. As Arnold would say, it really pushed you to accelerate… After a while, I started to like this competition, this one-upmanship. He’d get a bigger gun. I’d shoot more people. He’d shoot more people. But then, he went into science fiction, which kind of left me behind.”
Two kinds of people in this world: pinball people and video game people. You, Freddy, you’re pinball people.Figgs
In 1991, Arnie would follow the hugely successful Total Recall with a return to his most famous role as a reprogrammed Cyberdyne Systems Series 800 Model 101 Terminator. Not only was Terminator 2: Judgement Day the most expensive film ever made, it managed a record-breaking $516,800,000 worldwide, becoming the highest grossing R-rated movie until The Matrix Reloaded finally surpassed it more than a decade later. Following his marriage to JFK family member Maria Shiver, Arnie eventually looked to ingratiate himself with political circles by accepting more family-friendly roles, leading to a series of hugely successful movies that completely reinvented the star, something Stallone found much more difficult.
Stallone’s temporary flirtations with family-friendly roles during the same period backfired catastrophically, 1991’s Oscar and 1992’s Stop or My Mom Will Shoot! hardly the blockbuster ventures Sly was accustomed to. Further stoking the fires of their rivalry, Arnie actually tricked Stallone into starring in the latter, a movie he was initially approached to headline. “I read the script, and it was a piece of shit,” Schwarzenegger would explain. “Let’s be honest. I say to myself, I’m not going to do this movie. Then they went to Sly, and Sly called me, have they ever talked to you about doing this movie? And I said, yes, I was thinking about doing it. This is a really brilliant idea, this movie. When he heard that, because he was in competition, he said, ‘Whatever it takes, I’ll do the movie.’ And of course the movie went major into the toilet.”
Stop or My Mom Will Shoot! proved such a creative misfire that Stallone quickly abandoned his reinvention as a family-friendly comedy actor. A return to the action genre initially paid dividends, Cliffhanger, Demolition Man and The Specialist grossing a combined $615,000,000, but action’s golden age was on the wane as the 90s drew to a close, tried and tested box office draws such as Van Damme and Seagal beginning to feel the burn of oversaturation. The burgeoning superhero movie seemed like the perfect lifeline, but the much maligned comic book adaptation Judge Dredd, though doing worthwhile numbers at the box office, would seriously impact Stallone’s credibility as Hollywood’s hottest action star. The fact that Arnie’s high-profile appearance as Mr Freeze in Batman & Robin the following year, though just are creatively misguided, helped to more than double Judge Dredd‘s box office with a worldwide gross of $238,200,000, was the knock-out blow after the bell. By 1996, the musclebound image that had made Stallone such an unprecedented success was beginning to work against him.
Elsewhere, the indie scene was booming thanks in no small part to Miramax Films and a young prodigy named Quentin Tarantino, 1994’s Pulp Fiction becoming the first independent feature to surpass $100,000,000 at the US box office. So transformative was Tarantino’s writing style that it revolutionised the craft during the early 90s, making relics out of movies which relied on exposition to drive the plot forward. Post-Tarantino films were not star vehicles that promised untold riches for individual actors, generally employing ensemble casts, but as proven by Bruce Willis’ resurgence in the wake of Pulp Fiction, they could certainly revitalize a career. Willis had watched his stock plummet post Die Hard, typecast into action oblivion with damp squibs such as Hudson Hawk and Striking Distance. If Tarantino hadn’t rescued him from the figurative ashes, who knows where his career may have ended up?
In 1997, Miramax had high hopes for their latest picture Cop Land, a screenplay so revered it attracted a plethora of Hollywood’s most talented actors. The likes of Robert De Niro, a newly revitalised Harvey Keitel and Goodfellas revelation Ray Liotta would even agree to work for pay scale, accepting minimal fees for a low-key production that the trio saw much promise in. Screenwriter and director James Mangold, who would later receive a Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award nomination for 2017’s Logan, had received critical plaudits for 1995’s little known American drama Heavy, and all the pieces were in place for Cop Land to be his breakout film. His only real obstacle was the keen-to-be-involved Stallone, who saw Miramax’s latest venture as a chance to pull his own Bruce Willis.
Mangold initially had no interest in casting Stallone; in fact, he was dead against it. The filmmaker had grown weary of a muscles-to-burn star who had headlined so many testosterone-pumped studio vehicles he’d become somewhat complacent, recent efforts Assassins and Daylight displaying an actor who seemed to be going through the motions. Mangold was also wary of Stallone’s notorious hands-on approach and propensity to alter a screenplay to his own specifications, buoyed by the kind of ego that transformed First Blood into an international hit and saw him abandon the role of Axel Cobretti — later Axel Foley — late into development, leaving Martin Brest’s innovative smash Beverly Hills Cop in production limbo. Stallone brought plenty to the table but he was something of a behind-the-scenes Cerberus. You just didn’t know which head you’d be getting.
As Mangold would explain in a 2011 interview with The Playlist, “I didn’t want [Stallone]. When he was first brought up to me, I was like, ‘Please God no!’ My whole perception of Sly at that point was — and he’s a friend and he would understand — but it was like he’d made this series of slightly-less than his best tentpole movies that weren’t very taxing for him, and he was just kind of an indestructible force in one picture after another. And I was looking to cast a vulnerable guy who was soft, who can’t quite pull the trigger, and I’m getting Judge Dredd? All I laid out on the table was that I didn’t want to make this movie with him if he was going to take control of it, and I didn’t want to make this movie with him if he was going to change it, and I didn’t want to make this movie with him if he wouldn’t get fat.”
Stallone was determined to land the role and would immediately assuage Mangold’s fears by accepting that this was indeed his movie. He would even shed the muscle and pack on fifty pounds in order to meet the specifications of the film’s unsexy, hesitant hero, something other actors considered for the role weren’t exactly keen on. The film’s hearing-impaired, New Jersey town sheriff, Freddy Heflin, a character whose disability has kept him out of the NYPD, is in many ways the complete antithesis of your typical all-action cop, a character firmly in the shadows whose position as a law enforcement officer is little more than a token one. It was a huge departure for someone of Stallone’s profile but that’s exactly what he required if he was to return to the critically acclaimed days of the original Rocky.
In those terms, Stallone doesn’t disappoint. You could even say that his inspired turn in Cop Land is his best since Balboa; a contender for the finest of his entire career. The fact that he goes up against not only the likes of De Niro, Keitel and Liotta, but a plethora of first rate actors from a mouthwatering ensemble cast, makes his achievement all the more impressive, the underdog nature of the Heflin character in some ways mirroring his monumental comeback in creative terms. As much as I adored Schwarzenegger growing up, Stallone always had a deeper relatability in his locker, a human vulnerability that we only ever saw glimpses of as he positioned himself in the action blockbuster mode. Here he rediscovers those abilities, reminding us that the double Oscar nominee has much more to his arsenal.
I look at this town, and I don’t like what I see.Sheriff Freddy Heflin
Stallone’s refreshing deviation is the most rewarding part of Cop Land, which though littered with fine performances and scenery chewing sparkle doesn’t quite live up to the cast at its disposal. It’s still a rip-roaring ride with some absolutely thrilling scenes and engaging interactions (you can see why so many were attracted to Mangold’s screenplay) but there’s too much baggage at times, too many plot developments and backstories that seem unnecessary or underdeveloped. Part of the reason can be attributed to expectation. When you see the likes of De Niro, you expect huge, all encompassing performances. Here we get exceptional short bursts from a myriad of top stars — particularly the positively fearsome Harvey Keitel — but you sometimes get the feeling they’re attempting too much with too little. Mangold crams an awful lot into a 105-minute movie. That’s fairly long for a crime drama, but there are more characters vying for screen time than there are in the pages of a Dickens novel. Cop Land would have made an absolutely fantastic modern-day TV series because the characters are all worthy of their own extended arc.
Cop Land centres on the trials and tribulations of a New Jersey suburb populated by corrupt New York City police officers, the kind who’ll stoop to anything to maintain their stranglehold on the community. De Niro’s Internal Affairs detective, Moe Tilden, a stickler who attended the academy with Keitel’s devilishly bombastic Ray Donlan, is aware of his former friend’s mob connections but lacks the evidence to convict, even with a list of suspected misdemeanors up to and including the premeditated murder of a fellow officer. The next problem on their hit list is that of the dead officer’s guilt-ridden former partner, Gary Figgis, a coke-addled desperado with a grudge to bear (Liotta at his slippery, frenetic best). That’s until naive prodigy and Donlan nephew Murray ‘Superboy’ Babitch (Michael Rapaport) usurps Figgis by faking his own death after yet another misdemeanor, becoming his uncle’s next and most urgent target.
The situation is further complicated by yet another character in Peter Berg’s Joey Randone, who witnesses the attempted murder of Superboy at the hands of Donlan and cronies Jack Rucker and Frank Lagonda, played by the brilliant but squeezed-out Robert Patrick and Arthur Nascarella, respectively. If that wasn’t enough to digest, there’s also a quasi love triangle involving Freddy, unrequited love Liz Randone (Annabella Sciorra) and abusive husband Joey, which is sweet and earnest where it counts but somewhat glossed over, despite some potent chemistry and a typically dazzling turn from Sciorra. Twenty years earlier, Freddy saved Liz from drowning, an act of bravery that cost him his hearing, his career and ultimately his reputation. While the chaos surrounding Superboy’s supposed suicide unfolds on the George Washington Bridge, Freddy sits unaware, staring longingly across the Hudson River at the New York skyline. Buried beneath those waters is the memory of his solitary act of heroism, beyond them an abandoned dream he regularly mourns amid an accepted life of mediocrity. In a cute irony, Superboy ‘dies’ a hero while Heflin mourns the long-forgotten hero of yore. Both will be resurrected, their definitions redefined.
First conceived during the early 90s, a period of racial tension and police brutality triggered by the LA Riots and the infamous Rodney King incident, Cop Land was inspired by Mangold’s formative years as a Hudson Valley resident. A post-civil rights New York saw a mass exodus of whites from newly multiracial neighbourhoods such as Brooklyn and Queens, civil servants who felt they’d been forced out of their homes and set out to establish a new community away from liberal sentiments. Though the accidental killing of two African-American males acts as the trigger for Superboy’s plight and hints at racial profiling in the fictional town of Garrison, New Jersey, two deleted scenes explored institutional racism further, but even without those scenes the movie’s characters take a quasi-nationalist stance. Donlan and his crew project an ‘us against them’ mentality, extolling the virtues of an idyll away from the madness, a town where people are free to “walk across the street without fear.” In the eyes of Garrison’s residents, the likes of Donlan walk on water, a veneer of hard-boiled heroics masking the fear, racial hatred and corruption foaming beneath.
Stallone’s Freddy is an inflection of Garrison’s corrupt super cops, a man of integrity, determination and moral fibre who suppresses notions of heroism rather than wearing them as justification, but in the fate of a desperate, on-the-lam Superboy, redemption reveals itself without warning. The trigger for that redemption comes in the form of De Niro’s unscrupulous hard ass, Tilden, who in Stallone’s human tumbleweed “sees a man who’s waiting for something to do.” Tilden’s jurisdiction ends at the George Washington Bridge, and in Freddy he sees an opportunity, a chance to stir the pot and open wounds. Freddy is unconvinced by Tilden’s accusations, refusing to see the obvious in men that he looks up to, in a group that he longs to be a part of and identify with. Freddy will never be the NYPD officer he’d hoped to be, but thanks to Donlan he’s the next best thing, an extended member of the cop family who’s carved out a comfortable little rut for himself. As long as he knows his role he’s allowed to feel like one of the boys.
In reality, Freddy is the town’s lost child, a fixture as permanent and unremarkable as a barely functioning lamppost. He may wear a badge, he may drive a cruiser and dish out parking tickets, but his position is less about merit, more about blind loyalty and unquestioning subservience, something that has become almost second nature to him. Ray placates Freddy just enough to keep him at bay, wowing him with token introductions to higher ups, but he’s a convenience not a compadre, and when the sheriff begins asking questions, suggesting that he and Ray speak with Internal Affairs together, he’s referred to as a “little boy”, is told to “Go home, and don’t think so much.” Even best friend Figgs, having watched Freddy stumble out of the bar after one too many games of late-night pinball, jokes that it’s Freddy’s “bedtime”, but every man has their breaking point, and Tilden senses this. When Freddy finally realises the truth about Ray and offers to help Tilden, he’s no longer interested, admonishing the town’s plastic sheriff for not standing taller sooner. In reality, he’s giving him just the motivation he needs to follow through with his conviction.
Cop Land is an audacious matrimony of genres, combining modern crime thriller and classic noir with Western sensibilities. It lacks the fleshed-out complexities or finely-tuned trickery of classic noir, but it brings added weight to the table, namely through a series of hard-boiled performances and some truly first-class dialogue. Ironically, the film is at its best when embracing the pistols-at-dawn simplicity personified by Stallone’s conflicted hero-in-hibernation, his slow transformation culminating in an absolutely classic showdown that takes cinema’s wild west antics to the bristling suburbs.
Listen, you deaf fuck. I offered you a chance when we could have done something, I offered you a chance to be a cop, and you blew it! You blew it.Moe Tilden
Mangold had always been attracted to the old western archetype and the parallels drawn during childhood. In Stallone’s broken-down sheriff he unleashes a sleeping giant, a beacon of morality who grows into the role, becoming the man with a moral code who sets out to uphold the law by any means necessary. As Mangold would say of the Heflin character, “I found myself continually attracted in the thought process to Westerns, because to me they somehow have this very formal quality, and a lot of character—certainly a lot more than modern action films… they were generally these amazing character pieces about a man caught in a real moral crisis—where, in a sense, law, righteousness, right or wrong, were all up to him to define.”
When a desperate Superboy finally seeks out the sheriff, the only semblance of law in a town of brazen and unabashed lawlessness, Freddy is possessed by a singular, unflinching goal: to ensure that true justice is served. Stallone’s overweight, underappreciated lawman, goaded into action by an outsider who identifies exactly which buttons to press, trudges through a blood-spattered gallery of death with the similarly resurrected, late-to-the-party Figgs in tow. Mangold puts us directly in his protagonist’s shoes through the creative use of sound, a protracted din simulating a near deafness after a pistol is cruelly fired next to Freddy’s one good ear. Stumbling drunkenly through a slow-motion nightmare, we pick off the bad guys as Freddy does, relying on sight, instinct and just a smidgen of good fortune as the cockroaches appear thick and fast, motivated by the kind of bravery that is alien to Ray and his band of pseudo-heroes. When Ray cusses Freddy out having finally been put down by his pistol, Freddy tells him, “I can’t hear you, Ray,” a comment that works in both a figurative and literal sense. It’s the punctuation mark for Freddy’s redemption, liberation and absolution.
Despite its imperfections, Cop Land is one hell of a ride, a complex thriller with a simplistic focal point that showcases some of the finest actors of any generation, a film stripped of blockbuster intentions with everyday heroes and villains who feel much more authentic. The film, which was scheduled to show at the 1997 edition of the Cannes Film Festival, was pulled due to heavy, last-minute re-shoots. It managed to fulfil its August theatrical release, performing well at the box office with a worldwide return of $63,700,000, but it failed to revitalise Stallone’s career as he’d hoped. In fact, Stallone, still synonymous with the bustling action archetype by the late 90s, struggled to land significant roles for years thereafter, admitting that the film actually “hurt” his career. As a pre-shootout Freddy Heflin shows, admirable intentions don’t always reap the rewards they deserve.
Stallone must have been hugely disappointed by the way things panned out, but in hindsight he can be extremely proud of a risky departure that is worth its weight in gold from a purely creative standpoint. Ultimately, and against all odds, Cop Land is Stallone’s movie. Like the character he portrays, the once decadent superstar was something of a washed-up has-been by the time Mangold’s breakout movie hit theatres, a fading talent tarnished by years of calculated commercialism who outgunned some of the industry’s finest with a performance redolent of cinema’s golden boy of yesteryear. The closing moments of Cop Land see Freddy staring out at that same New York skyline, no longer wondering what could have been. The world he inhabits may be smaller, but it offers something greater and more rewarding. The same could be said of Stallone’s performance here, which towers without towering, succeeding on a level beyond conventional success.