Stallone Acts: Cop Land (1997, directed by James Mangold)


Garrison, New Jersey is a middle class suburb that is known as Cop Land.  Under the direction of Lt. Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel), several NYPD cops have made their home in Garrison, financing their homes with bribes that they received from mob boss Tony Torillo (Tony Sirico).  The corrupt cops of Garrison, New Jersey live, work, and play together, secure in the knowledge that they can do whatever they want because Donlan has handpicked the sheriff.

Sheriff Freddy Heflin (Sylvester Stallone) always dreamed of being a New York cop but, as the result of diving into icy waters to save a drowning girl, Freddy is now deaf in one ear.  Even though he knows that they are all corrupt, Freddy still idolizes cops like Donlan, especially when Donlan dangles the possibility of pulling a few strings and getting Freddy an NYPD job in front of him.  The overweight and quiet Freddy spends most of his time at the local bar, where he’s the subject of constant ribbing from the “real” cops.  Among the cops, Freddy’s only real friend appears to be disgraced narcotics detective, Gary Figgis (Ray Liotta).

After Donlan’s nephew, Murray Babitch (Michael Rapaport), kills two African-American teenagers and then fakes his own death to escape prosecution, Internal Affairs Lt. Moe Tilden (Robert De Niro) approaches Freddy and asks for his help in investigating the corrupt cops of Garrison.  At first, Freddy refuses but he is soon forced to reconsider.

After he became a star, the idea that Sylvester Stallone was a bad actor because so universally accepted that people forgot that, before he played Rocky and Rambo, Stallone was a busy and respectable character actor.  Though his range may have been limited and Stallone went through a period where he seemed to always pick the worst scripts available, Stallone was never as terrible as the critics often claimed.  In the 90s, when it became clear that both the Rocky and the Rambo films had temporarily run their course, Stallone attempted to reinvent his image.  Demolition Man showed that Stallone could laugh at himself and Cop Land was meant to show that Stallone could act.

For the most part, Stallone succeeded.  Though there are a few scenes where the movie does seem to be trying too hard to remind us that Freddy is not a typical action hero, this is still one of Sylvester Stallone’s best performances.  Stallone plays Freddy as a tired and beaten-down man who knows that he’s getting one final chance to prove himself.  It helps that Stallone’s surrounded by some of the best tough guy actors of the 90s.  Freddy’s awkwardness around the “real” cops is mirrored by how strange it initially is to see Stallone acting opposite actors like Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, and Ray Liotta.  Cop Land becomes not only about Freddy proving himself as a cop but Stallone proving himself as an actor.

The film itself is sometimes overstuffed.  Along with the corruption investigation and the search for Murray Babitch, there’s also a subplot about Freddy’s unrequited love for Liz Randone (Annabella Sciorra) and her husband’s (Peter Berg) affair with Donlan’s wife (Cathy Moriarty).  There’s enough plot here for a Scorsese epic and it’s more than Cop Land‘s 108-minute run time can handle.  Cop Land is at its best when it concentrates on Freddy and his attempt to prove to himself that he’s something more than everyone else believes.  The most effective scenes are the ones where Freddy quietly drinks at the local tavern, listening to Gary shoot his mouth off and stoically dealing with the taunts of the people that he’s supposed to police.  By the time that Freddy finally stands up for himself, both you and he have had enough of everyone talking down to him.  The film’s climax, in which a deafened Freddy battles the corrupt cops of Garrison, is an action classic.

Though the story centers on Stallone, Cop Land has got a huge ensemble cast.  While it’s hard to buy Janeane Garofalo as a rookie deputy, Ray Liotta and Robert Patrick almost steal the film as two very different cops.  Interestingly, many members of the cast would go on to appear on The Sopranos.  Along with Sirico, Sciorra, Patrick, and Garofalo, keep an eye out for Frank Vincent, Arthur Nascarella, Frank Pelligrino, John Ventimiglia, Garry Pastore,  and Edie Falco in small roles.

Cop Land was considered to be a box office disappointment when it was released and Stallone has said that the film’s failure convinced people that he was just an over-the-hill action star and that, for eight years after it was released, he couldn’t get anyone to take his phone calls.  At the time, Cop Land‘s mixed critical and box office reception was due to the high expectations for both the film and Stallone’s performance.  In hindsight, it’s clear that Cop Land was a flawed but worthy film and that Stallone’s performance remains one of his best.

 

An Olympic Film Review: Cool Runnings (dir by Jon Turtletaub)


Like all good people, I am currently obsessed with the Winter Olympics.  Earlier this week, I asked some of my closest friends if they could recommend some good films about the Winter Games.  Almost everyone who replied recommended that I check out Cool Runnings, a film from 1993.

So, I did.

And I’m glad that I did.

Cool Runnings is one of those sports movies that’s based on a true story, though I imagine it’s probably a very loose adaptation.  Jamaica is a country with a long and proud Olympic history.  Since the 1948 Summer Olympics, Jamaican athletes have won a total of 77 medals, the majority of them in individual and relay sprinting events.  However, Jamaica didn’t compete in the Winter Olympics until 1988, when the Jamaican Bobsled Team made their debut.  According to contemporary news reports, the Jamaicans were folk heroes at the ’88 Winter Games and other teams would frequently help them out by lending them equipment.  Though the Jamaicans were never really a medal contender, they were personally popular and everyone was upset when their bobsled crashed during one of their qualifying runs.

That, of course, isn’t exactly the story that’s told in Cool Runnings.  In Cool Runnings, the Jamaican bobsled team is ridiculed by all of the snobs on the other teams, with the Germans especially going out of their way to be condescending.  Their first run is a disaster but their second run puts them into medal contention and causes people all over the world to spontaneously break into applause.  It’s a sports film, after all.  For a sports film to work, there has to be adversity before there can be victory.  Cool Runnings does stick close enough to the real story that the Jamaicans do end up crashing their sled.  However, in the film version, the team proudly carries their bobsled over the finish line while, again, people all around the world applaud.  Even a woman with a Russian flag claps.  And yes, it’s all pretty hokey but who cares?  It made me cry.

It’s a well-done film, one that is unapologetically sentimental and all the better for it.  Before I watched the film, I didn’t know anything about how the bobsled worked, beyond the fact that it involved four people and that everyone had to jump into the sled after launching it.  But, ultimately, it didn’t matter that I didn’t know much about bobsledding.  From the moment that film started, with scenes of aspiring Olympians running across sunny Jamaica, it had my attention.

When the film starts, Derice Bannock (Leon Robinson) is hoping to compete in the Summer Olympics but, at the qualifying trial, Derice and another runner, Yul Brenner (Malik Yorba), end up tripping over yet another runner, the likable and enthusiastic Junior Bevil (Rawle D. Lewis).  Out of contention for the Summer Olympics, Derice decides to try to find a way to go to the Winter Olympics.  Fortunately, there’s a former Olympic bobsledder, Irv Blitzer (John Candy), living nearby and Derice’s best friend, Sanka (Doug E. Doug) is a champion push cart racer.

The film follows Irv and the four Jamaicans on their unlikely journey to Canada.  It’s a comedy with a dramatic heart.  Yes, Sanka may need help getting his helmet over his hair (“Thanks, coach,” he says whenever Irv pounds down the helmet) but the film also takes the time to explore why it’s so important for these four to compete in the first place.  It might be tempting to make fun of Yul Brenner when he talks about how he wants to live in Buckingham Palace but the film makes clear just how important this improbable dream is for Yul and everyone else.  No one may give the Jamaican bobsled team a chance but Jamaica never stops believing in them.

It’s an incredibly sweet little movie, featuring likable performances and a heart-warming story.  I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a good sports story.

The Things You Find On Netflix: Paradox (dir by Michael Hurst)


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Poor Zoe Bell!

Zoe Bell is a kickass stuntwoman and a better than average actress.  Ever since she appeared in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, she’s had a strong cult following and there are people who will definitely watch any film in which she appears.  I like her because she always plays strong, independent women who can kick ass better than any man.

But — with the exception of Death Proof and Raze — it’s hard not to feel that her unique talents have been largely wasted in many of the movies in which she has appeared.  I have to admit that I even groaned a little when she showed up in The Hateful Eight, largely because I knew it would just be another pointless cameo where she would only be allowed a few minutes to talk about being from New Zealand before being killed in some dramatic fashion.

(Seriously, Quentin — we all know you love Zoe Bell so why not write her another worthwhile role, instead of just using her as your latest directorial trademark?  Write her a role and a film worthy of her!)

The latest film to waste Zoe Bell is Paradox, a sci-fi slasher film that you can currently find on Netflix.

Paradox is a time travel movie and I’m a little bit hesitant to talk too much about the plot because the plot sounds a lot more interesting than it actually is.  Gale (Zoe) and Jim (Adam Huss) are part of a team of scientists and engineers who have built a time machine in an underground bunker.  The mysterious Mr. Landau (Malik Yorba) has shown up to be given a demonstration of how the machine works.  (Meanwhile, the NSA is sitting outside the bunker, hoping to figure out what’s going on.  It turns out that they have a mole working on the inside and blah blah blah…)

Now, you would think that a time machine would be a pretty cool thing to have but it turns out that the machine has a few flaws.  First off, there’s the fact that the mere existence of the machine forces people to engage in ponderous dialogue about paradoxes, time loops, and whether or not the future is set in stone.  Secondly, the machine also gives anyone who uses it minor brain damage.  Third, after Jim uses the machine to jump forward an hour, he returns and announces that, in the future, everyone in the underground bunker has been murdered!

That’s right — there’s a killer among the scientists!  Who could it be!?  And could that killer possibly be working for the mysterious Stephen Devlin, a man who apparently used the time machine to become a billionaire in the future and who now has to make sure that the scientists in his past don’t destroy the machine in the present?  (My head hurts after typing that.)

It’s full of twists and turns and secrets.  But it really doesn’t matter because the execution is never as good as the premise.  Paradox is one of those films that should be great but instead, it ends up collapsing under the weight of a low budget, a bad script, terrible performances, and indifferent direction.  Zoe Bell is pretty much wasted, though she at least gets to do more here than she did in The Hateful Eight.

Paradox was given a brief and very limited theatrical run before coming over to Netflix.  In fact, if not for the fact that watching Hardcore Henry actually left me feeling physically ill, I would be tempted to declare Paradox to be the worst film of the year so far.

As I said, Paradox is on Netflix right now.  It’s one to avoid.