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.

 

Playing Catch Up: Welcome to New York (dir by Abel Ferrara)


Welcome_to_New_York_(2014)

Gerard Depardieu is naked a lot in Welcome to New York and I know you’re probably being snarky and sarcastically thinking, “Well, then I’m definitely going to track down this film…” but actually, the frequent display of Depardieu’s body gets to the heart of what makes his performance so memorable.  Playing an extremely unsympathetic role, Depardieu doesn’t hide the character’s depravity from the audience.  He reveals every inch of the character, from his flabby body to his empty soul.  It takes courage to bring such an unsympathetic character to life and talent to keep the audience watching and fortunately, Depardieu has both of those.

Welcome to New York opens with Depardieu (as himself) talking to a group of reporters and explaining why he’s decided to play a character based on Dominique Strauss-Kahn in Abel Ferrara’s upcoming movie.  It’s an interesting way to start, both because it features Depardieu’s scornful opinion of politicians and because it leaves no doubt that, even if Depardieu’s character has been renamed Devereaux, Welcome to New York is directly based on the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case.

(Dominique Strauss-Kahn, of course, was the wealthy French socialist who many thought was going to be the next President of France until he was arrested after raping a hotel maid in New York City.  As a wealthy and well-connected white man, he was acquitted of raping the maid, who neither wealthy, well-connected, or white.   Throughout the trial, the usual collection of elitists complained about how Americans just didn’t understand French culture but, ultimately, Strauss-Kahn’s political career was ended by the scandal.)

Welcome to New York closely follows the facts of the Strauss-Kahn case.  Wealthy banker and politician Devereaux is in New York on business.  When he meets his daughter and her boyfriend, he spends the entire lunch asking them about their sex life.  When he returns to his hotel, he and his business associates hire a group of prostitutes and have one of the most depressing orgies ever captured on film.

I have to admit that during these first part of the film, I was often tempted to turn off Welcome To New York.  No, it wasn’t that the film was too explicit.  Instead, my problem was that Devereaux was such a dull character.  Devereaux has a lot of sex during the first third of the film but, at no point, does he seem to enjoy it.  Instead, he is detached from everything happening around him and it doesn’t exactly make for compelling viewing.

But, as the film played out, I realized that we weren’t supposed to find Devereaux in any way compelling.  Instead, Devereaux is portrayed as a hollow and empty shell.  For him, sex is all about entitlement and power.  After his is arrested for raping the hotel maid, Devereaux appears to be more surprised than anything else.  Rather than feeling regret at being caught or even fear that he might be convicted, Devereaux seems to be shocked that a man of his wealth would be held responsible for his actions.

After Devereaux is arrested, the film’s pace picks up a bit.  Devereaux’s wife, Simone (Jacqueline Bisset), flies to New York and takes over her husband’s defense.  It’s not that Simone feels that Devereaux has been wrongly accused.  In fact, Simone really doesn’t seem to care much for her husband in general.  However, Simone is determined that Devereaux is going to be the next president of France and she certainly has no intention of allowing some American criminal case to stand in his way.  Bisset gives a chilling performance as the almost fanatically driven Simone.

Soon, Devereaux is under house arrest and staying at a rented house.  (For these scenes, Welcome to New York filmed in the same house that Strauss-Kahn stayed at during his trial.)  It’s while locked away in the house that Devereaux finally starts to realize that he has gone too far.  It’s in the house that Devereaux remembers the man he was once was and is forced to confront the man that he has become.

Welcome to New York is not always an easy film to watch but, thanks to Depardieu and Bisset’s ferocious performances, it’s a film that will reward patient viewers.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #103: 21 Grams (dir by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu)


21_grams_movieRemember how shocked a lot of us were when we first saw Birdman?  Well, it wasn’t just because Birdman featured an underwear-clad Michael Keaton levitating in his dressing room.  And it also wasn’t just because Birdman was edited to make it appear as if it had been filmed in one continuous take (though, to be honest, I would argue that the whole “one continuous shot” thing added little to the film’s narrative and was more distracting than anything else.)  No, the main reason we were shocked was that Birdman was directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and, when we thought of an Inarritu film, we thought of something like 2003’s 21 Grams.

It’s not easy to explain the plot of 21 Grams, despite the fact that 21 Grams does not tell a particularly complicated story.  In fact, if anything, the plot of 21 Grams feels like something that either Douglas Sirk or Nicholas Ray could have come up with in the 50s.  Indeed, the plot of 21 Grams is far less important than the way the Inarritu tells the story.  (In that, the dark and grim 21 Grams does have something in common with the arguably comedic Birdman.)

Inarritu tells his story out of chronological order.  That, in itself, is nothing spectacular.  Many directors use the same technique.  What distinguishes 21 Grams is the extreme to which Inarritu takes his non-chronological approach.  Scenes play out with deceptive randomness and it is left to the viewer to try to figure out how each individual scene fits into the film’s big picture.  As you watch 21 Grams, you find yourself thankful for little details like Sean Penn’s beard, the varying lengths of Naomi Watts’s hair, and the amount of sadness in Benicio Del Toro’s eyes because it’s only by paying attention to those little details can we piece together how once scene relates to another.

The film tells the story of three people whose lives are disrupted by the type of tragedies that the pre-Birdman Innaritu was best known for.

Sean Penn plays Paul Rivers, who is a sickly mathematician who desperately needs a new heart.  He’s married to a Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who devotes all of her time to taking care of him and is frustrated by Paul’s fatalistic attitude towards his condition.  When Paul does finally get a new heart, he gets a new existence but is haunted by the fact that it has come at the expense of another man’s life.

Christina Peck (played by Naomi Watts) is a former drug addict who is now married with kids and who appears to have the perfect life.  That is until her husband and children are tragically killed and, in her grief, Christina falls back into her old lifestyle.  The formerly stable and happy Christina becomes obsessed with the idea of getting revenge for all that she has lost.  Naomi Watts was deservedly nominated for an Oscar for her work here.  Her vulnerable and emotionally raw performance holds your interest, even when you’re struggling to follow the film’s jumbled chronology.

And finally, there’s Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro).  Like Christina, Jack is a former drug addict.  Whereas Christina used the stability of family life to help her escape from her demons, Jack uses his new-found Christianity.  And just as Christina struggles after she loses her family, Jack struggles after tragedy causes him to lose his faith.  Like Paul, he struggles with why he’s been allowed to live while other have not.  Del Toro was nominated for an Oscar here and, like Watts, he more than deserved the nomination.

(While Sean Penn was not nominated for his performance in 21 Grams, he still won the Oscar for his role in Mystic River.)

21 Grams is a powerful and deeply sad film, one that will probably shock anyone who only knows Inarritu for his work on Birdman.  21 Grams is not always an easy film to watch.  Both emotionally and narratively, it’s challenging.  But everyone should accept the challenge.