As with Stallone’s Rhinestone, in which he starred as a country-singing New York cabbie (1984), Oscar (1991), a remake of a French crime comedy, and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, a buddy cop comedy that he cites as one of the films he wished he’d never done, Cop Land was Stallone’s fourth attempt to expand his resume beyond the one-dimensional action films of his past, such as Cobra, Cliffhanger, and Demolition Man, with a film that offered more character-driven content.
Written and directed by James Mangold (he made his writing and directing debut with the excellent 1995 grunge-era drama, Heavy, directed 2013’s The Wolverine, and received an Oscar nod for Best Adapted Screenplay for the 2017 Marvel Universe entry, Logan), Cop Land is an “urban western” that tells the story of a small town sheriff, Freddy Helflin (Stallone), who fights corruption in the town of Garrison, New Jersey, at the hands of a gang of corrupt New York City cops that live in the town led by Ray Donian (Harvey Keitel) and Gary Figgs (Ray Liotta). To battle the corruption, Internal Affairs Office Moe Tidlen (Robert De Niro) presses Helflin into service.
While the film cleared just under $65 million at the box office on a $15 million budget, the film was considered a flop that Stallone felt hurt his career as an action star. While the film was an attempt to show his acting skills and initiate a career change into dramatic acting, he ended up being critically derided by the fans of his action films—just as they had rejected his attempts at comedy—who felt he failed to equal the chops of the acting dynasties that are Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel.
Looking back at the fact that Ray Liotta did Goodfellas seven years earlier alongside De Niro, this was obviously meant to be Stallone’s “Goodfellas,” with corrupt cops instead of mobsters. Is Cop Land as good as Goodfellas? Well, while Cop Land wasn’t graced with what seems around-the-clock cable TV replays, Stallone’s Freddy Helfin is the most real person he’s portrayed on film since 1976’s Rocky and 1974’s The Lords of Flatbush.
So if your only exposure to Sylvester Stallone’s oeuvre is his action work and you’ve avoided Cop Land and F.I.S.T. because of the film’s mixed reviews, do make a point of popping in a DVD (or log onto whatever digital platform) and watch both films as double feature to see the true depth and skill of Stallone’s thespian abilities and know that he’s not just a “personality based actor” who rattles off dialog.
Sylvester Stallone is an Oscar caliber actor that, hopefully, as he ages out of his abilities to do action pictures such as The Expendables, he’ll be given an opportunity to shine in more character-driven pieces. It’s all a matter of box office. If Cop Land had been a critical and box office smash analogous to Goodfellas, I believe Stallone would have received a Best Actor nod. Cop Land is a highly underrated film and Stallone’s greatest moment in front of the camera.