The town of Garrison in New Jersey is the home to many of the New York police force, a safe haven for them to live, and as a result there is hardly any crime there at all. Or none that is obvious, not apparent to their resident sheriff Freddy Heflin (Sylvester Stallone) anyway; he is rather slow-witted and has always wanted to join the NYPD, but being deaf in one ear after an incident in his youth has always gone against his applications. Tonight, he leaves the local cop bar and drives home when he swerves to avoid a deer in the road, crashing his car. But in the city, there is another incident occuring that will be far more damaging...
Cop Land was Stallone's effort to be taken seriously as an actor after all those action films he had made his name with, as if recognising that he could not play the action hero for the rest of his life. Of course, after this he realised that he could indeed play the action hero for the rest of his life and had hits with Rocky and Rambo movies, but for a while there it seemed as though he would be taking the character actor route, and in truth this film proved he was very capable in that role, even if he wasn't exactly playing a rocket scientist.
Certainly compared to everyone else in the cast, and an impressive cast it is, Stallone comes across as natural and engaging, because the other heavyweights that writer and director James Mangold surrounds him with have been studying the book of New York Cop clichés. True, you don't see them munching down on doughnuts and swilling coffee out of polystyrene cups, but there something about the style of performance here that has a second hand, seen it all before quality. Look at Robert De Niro especially, almost a self-parody of himself as he improvises various bits of business, including the irritating habit of repeating what he has just said.
De Niro plays an internal affairs man who is investigating a strange incident that apparently saw a cop, Murray (Michael Rapaport), killing a couple of hoods who threatened him with a gun, but when the police arrive they cannot find the weapon and there are suspicious circumstances, not least when his detective uncle Ray (Harvey Keitel) claims he saw Murray leap from the bridge to his death in an act of guilt-ridden suicide. He isn't dead at all, but has been spirited away back to Garrison in hiding until the corrupt cops can set up a new life for him - yet he is fast becoming a liability.
This is because the whole affair with Murray risks exposing the links these cops have with the Mob, so who is the one man who can sort this mess out? Step forward Freddy, who is something of a joke to the residents he is supposed to be policing, and has to be seriously disillusioned before he can turn hero much in the same way of a number of westerns where the sheriff has to clean up his town (it ends with the expected shoot-out). As implausible and over-involved as Cop Land gets, Stallone provides it with heart and someone to guide us, so even if Mangold takes a dim view of most of the law enforcers, who believe they are above that law no matter what, Freddy is the man who restores our faith. With tender scenes between him and the sweetheart he never married (Annabella Sciorra), the star showed he could be subtle, something no one in the rest of the film bothered with. Music by Howard Shore.