Cop Land (1997) is writer/director James Mangold’s reimagining of the gritty New Hollywood cop film as a pulpy film noir. The plot is pure pulp, the execution all grit and machismo. It’s a bold move that pays off to varying degrees of success. While this formula proves that the existential quandaries of noir have their parallels in contemporary concerns regarding police corruption and brutality, the limited characterization is signaled not in the writing so much as by the cast; each lead an established signifier in their own right.
Like so many of the classic Noir films of the forties, Cop Land crams lots of twists and turns into its modest runtime. The tone, political concerns, and setting play out like a ballad off of Bruce Springsteen’s album Nebraska. This connection is further reiterated by Mangold’s use of Springsteen on the soundtrack of the film in two scenes where Sylvester Stallone’s noble small town sheriff falls asleep to the “Boss”. The fractured masculinity of Noir has been filtered through the pop music of Springsteen, making Cop Land a wholly unique slice of pulp.
However, none of this would truly work if it weren’t for the all-star cast that elevates the material. These actors may not be playing the most complexly written characters, but they know how to trade on their star personas to maximize screen time in order to imply that absent complexity. Much has been said of Stallone’s performance, but it is really Ray Liotta, Harvey Keitel, and Robert De Niro who accomplish a lot with very little. The presence of these three performers also invites comparisons with the crime films of Martin Scorsese to which Mangold is more than a little indebted.
What Stallone, the actual lead of the film, does is to reinvent his iconic Rocky character as a deeply troubled loner version of Sheriff Andy Taylor. Stallone’s work is primarily in gestures that signal other texts and not the sort of character invention or self-revelation that some of his co-stars are undergoing in the film. This is not a negative criticism. This simply suggests that Stallone is crafting a character of myth, a hero, rather than a flesh and blood human being.
By and large Cop Land feels more relevant today than it ever has. Its story of justice and corrupting power flies in the face of the popular “copaganda” films of the nineties. It was an audacious sophomore feature from Mangold that leaves one wishing that he would return to making films like Cop Land rather than Indiana Jones sequels.