The fictional town of Garrison, New Jersey, located across the Hudson River from New York City, is home to several NYPD officers, led by Lt. Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel). Freddy Heflin (Sylvester Stallone) is the town Sheriff. He idolizes the NYPD and hoped to become an officer, but cannot due to being deaf in one ear, the result of saving a young woman from drowning many years earlier. Heflin is aware of the group's corrupt dealings but generally turns a blind eye, thinking there is nothing he can do about it. Internal Affairs investigator Lt. Moe Tilden (Robert De Niro) approaches Heflin for information on the corrupt cops, but Heflin is intimidated and reluctant to betray them.
One night, Donlan's nephew, Officer Murray "Superboy" Babitch (Michael Rapaport) is driving across the George Washington Bridge when his car is side-swiped by a couple of African-American teens. The passenger points at what looks like a weapon just before Babitch's tire blows out. Believing they have fired at him, Babitch shoots back, and in an ensuing crash, kills the teens. Officer Jack Rucker (Robert Patrick) removes the steering-wheel lock that Babitch mistook for a weapon from the hands of the dead teens and is caught trying to plant a real gun in the car. Worried about the repercussions to his own career, Donlan persuades Babitch to fake his own suicide.
In the meantime, Liz Randone (Annabella Sciorra), the wife of Joey Randone, one of the corrupt cops, visits Heflin at his home. It was Liz whom Heflin saved from drowning years ago. When she asks Heflin why he never married, he confesses his love for Liz ("All the best girls were taken."). Liz reciprocates the affection by cradling his head in her arms. Knowing this could go too far, she reluctantly leaves.
Babitch initially lives as a fugitive at Donlan's home, but then Patrolmen's Defense Association President Vincent Lassaro (Frank Vincent) tells Donlan that without a body, the case will not stay cold. Donlan reluctantly realizes they have to drown Babitch. Babitch is tipped off by his aunt Rose (Cathy Moriarty) and he escapes. He goes to Heflin's house for help, but flees when he sees Heflin's friend, Officer Gary "Figgsy" Figgis (Ray Liotta). The same evening, at a police stand-off, Donlan allows Officer Joey Randone to fall off a rooftop, in revenge for Randone's affair with Donlan's wife.
Heflin realizes the deaths are orchestrated, and he visits Tilden, but Tilden's investigation has been shut down by the corrupt system and he angrily dismisses Heflin's effort as too late. On his way out, Heflin steals case files on the Garrison cops. He studies the files and realizes the extent of his residents' corruption.
Heflin returns home to find Figgsy packing to leave. Heflin discovers that Figgsy burned down his own house for the insurance money, inadvertently killing his crack-addict girlfriend. Heflin convinces Rose to reveal Babitch's hide-out, and takes him into custody. Donlan's team ambush them and fire a gun at Heflin's good ear, deafening and disabling him, and kidnap Babitch.
On foot and almost totally deaf, Heflin follows them to Donlan's house, where a shootout commences. Donlan's team dead, Heflin and Figgsy take Babitch to New York City, refusing to allow any cops to intervene, until they reach Tilden. After the scandal has been investigated and indictments handed down, Heflin, who has recovered hearing in his good ear, surveys the New York City skyline from across the Hudson River and goes back to work in Garrison, NJ.Sylvester Stallone as Sheriff Freddy Heflin
Harvey Keitel as Lt. Ray Donlan
Ray Liotta as Officer Gary "Figgsy" Figgis
Robert Patrick as Officer Jack Rucker
Robert De Niro as Lt. Moe Tilden
Michael Rapaport as Officer Murray "Superboy" Babitch
Peter Berg as Officer Joey Randone
Annabella Sciorra as Liz Randone
Cathy Moriarty as Rose Donlan
Janeane Garofalo as Deputy Sheriff Cindy Betts
Noah Emmerich as Deputy Sheriff Bill Geisler
Arthur Nascarella as Det. Frank Lagonda
Malik Yoba as Det. Sam Carson
Frank Vincent as PDA President Vincent Lassaro
John Spencer as Det. Leo Crasky
John Ventimiglia as Officer Michael Vittorio
Victor Williams as Officer Russell Ames
Edie Falco as Berta (Bomb Squad Agent)
Mel Gorham as Monica Lopez
Paul Calderón as Hector (GWB Paramedic)
Vincent Laresca as Robert (GWB Paramedic)
Method Man as Shondel (rooftop perp)
Deborah Harry as Delores (4 Aces bartender)
Tony Sirico as Salvatore "Toy" Torillo (photo only)
Garrison, New Jersey, is a fictional town. The movie is based on Mangold's hometown of Washingtonville, New York, located about 60 miles (97 km) from New York City. Mangold grew up in a development called Worley Heights, where many of the residents were current and former NYPD police officers. The principal shooting location for the film was Edgewater, New Jersey.
All of the actors in the film worked for scale due to the film's modest budget. Stallone gained 40 pounds (18 kg) to portray the beaten-down sheriff of Garrison. There are no "municipal sheriff" departments in New Jersey. The only sheriff's departments in New Jersey are county sheriff's departments.
Cop Land had its world premiere at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York City on August 6, 1997. Some of the film's cast members attended, including Stallone, Keitel, Liotta, Sciorra, Moriarty and Rapaport.
Stallone's understated performance was praised by critics and he received the Best Actor award at the Stockholm International Film Festival. Cop Land was also screened at the 54th Venice Film Festival in the Midnight line-up. Earlier in May 1997, the film was accepted into the main competition at the Cannes Film Festival, but Miramax declined the invitation due to re-shoots that were needed for the film, including footage of Stallone 40 pounds heavier.
Critical reaction was generally positive. Based on 62 reviews collected from notable publications by review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an overall approval rating of 73%. Roger Ebert gave the film two out of four stars and wrote, "There is a rough balance between how long a movie is, how deep it goes and how much it can achieve. That balance is not found in Cop Land and the result is too much movie for the running time". On the other hand, Gene Siskel praised the movie, especially the screenplay, "One to be savored."
In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin felt that, "the strength of Cop Land is in its hard-edged, novelistic portraits, which pile up furiously during the film's dynamic opening scenes... Yet if the price of Mangold's casting ambitions is a story that can't, finally, match its marquee value, that value is still inordinately strong. Everywhere the camera turns in this tense and volatile drama, it finds enough interest for a truckload of conventional Hollywood fare. Whatever its limitations, Cop Land has talent to burn".
Entertainment Weekly gave the film a "B-" rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, "Stallone does a solid, occasionally winning job of going through the motions of shedding his stardom, but the wattage of his personality is turned way down—at times, it's turned down to neutral. And that pretty much describes Cop Land, too. Dense, meandering, ambitious yet jarringly pulpy, this tale of big-city corruption in small-town America has competence without mood or power—a design but not a vision". In her review for the Washington Post, Rita Kempley wrote, "With its redundancy of supporting characters, snarled subplots and poky pace, Cop Land really might have been better off trading the director for a traffic cop". Rolling Stone magazine's Peter Travers praised Stallone's performance: "His performance builds slowly but achieves a stunning payoff when Freddy decides to clean up his town ... Freddy awakes to his own potential, and it's exhilarating to watch the character and the actor revive in unison. Nearly down for the count in the movie ring, Stallone isn't just back in the fight. He's a winner". In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle also liked Stallone's work: "His transformation is more than a matter of weight. He looks spiritually beaten and terribly sad. He looks like a real person, not a cult-of-the-body film star, and he uses the opportunity to deliver his best performance in years".
Unlike 1991's Oscar and 1992's Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, Stallone's previous high-profile attempts at branching out of one-dimensional action star roles, both of which ultimately ended up commercially unsuccessful, critically panned, and often ridiculed, Cop Land, with its star-studded heavyweight ensemble cast, was met with high expectations as a multifaceted story based around corruption on the New York City police force. Additionally, it was to show Stallone in a completely different light, both physically (his 40-pound weight gain got a lot of press coverage), as well as artistically, by letting him showcase his acting skills. While the film posted a solid box-office intake ($44.8 million domestically), got good reviews, and Stallone received positive critical notices for his performance as a demure small-town sheriff, in 2008 the actor stated on the Opie and Anthony Show that Cop Land "hurt" his career and that he had trouble getting roles for eight years, due to the film's failure to reach the high expectations set for it and the mix of views on whether he was leaving action movies for more character-driven content. Stallone has described this as "the beginning of the end, for about eight years".
In 2011, for Cop Land's release on Blu-ray, the film's writer and director James Mangold commented on the film's reception: "The movie was under so much pressure to be America's next Pulp Fiction. But it's such a dark and sad tale, less jazzy and more of a kind of morality tale. It ends in a dark place. The star value got so high, and Miramax wanted the grosses to be so high. When it came out, a lot of daggers were out for Sly. He had made a bunch of shittier moves, he’s the first to admit, that weren't aimed for the highest result each time out".
The film was nominated by the American Film Institute for the 2006 list AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers.
The film's soundtrack features two songs from Bruce Springsteen's 1980 album The River: "Drive All Night" and "Stolen Car", songs by other artists, and an original score from Howard Shore. One additional song, Blue Öyster Cult's "Burnin' for You", was added to the soundtrack of the director's cut, first released on home video in 2004.
The score by Howard Shore was performed by The London Philharmonic Orchestra and released as Cop Land: Music From The Miramax Motion Picture in 1997. The soundtrack released on CD contained twelve tracks, with a runtime of 40:11 minutes.
All music composed by Howard Shore.
Cop Land has been released on VHS and DVD numerous times since 1998. The initial extras-free DVDs had the theatrical cut in non-anamorphic widescreen, while subsequent issues, including various "Collector's Editions" on DVD and Blu-ray, have favoured the director's cut. StudioCanal's French and German region B-locked Blu-rays exclusively feature both the 101-minute theatrical cut and 116-minute director's cut.
Extras include an audio commentary (with James Mangold, Sylvester Stallone, Robert Patrick, and producer Cathy Konrad), "The Making of an Urban Western" featurette, a storyboard comparison, two deleted scenes and the theatrical trailer.
The two deleted scenes primarily show the racism in the town of Garrison. One scene involves all the resident police officers chasing down a pair of black motorists, and the other shows Heflin's deputy pointing out that the majority of the tickets issued in Garrison go to black motorists on charges that suggest racial profiling.