25 years ago, Sylvester Stallone delivered his best performance in a hard-hitting crime drama 1 month ago

25 years ago, Sylvester Stallone delivered his best performance in a hard-hitting crime drama

The movie also features Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro and a whole bunch of Sopranos cast members.

If you were to ask a group of movie lovers what their favourite Sylvester Stallone films were, most would probably say the Rocky and Rambo franchises, with others maybe sticking up for Cliffhanger, Demolition Man or Tango & Cash.

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Weirdly though, not many would mention 1997's Cop Land, despite it boasting probably the best performance of his entire career - something which is no small feat given he shares the screen in the movie with some of the best actors of an entire generation.

Written and directed by James Mangold (who would later find great acclaim with Ford v Ferrari and Logan), the densely-plotted crime thriller sees Stallone plays Freddy Heflin, a man who always dreamed of becoming a cop but was unable to do so after becoming deaf in one ear while saving a woman from drowning when he was younger.

Instead, he became sheriff in the small town of Garrison in New Jersey - an area populated by a group of New York Police Department cops - including Lieutenant Ray Donlan (an effortlessly commanding Harvey Keitel) and officer Gary Figgis (a live-wire but sympathetic Ray Liotta).

Though Heflin idolises the cops and they treat him reasonably well in return, the sheriff's loyalties become tested when a well-publicised shooting involving Donlan's nephew and fellow cop (Michael Rapaport) brings new attention to Garrison.

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The arrival of Internal Affairs investigator Lieutenant Moe Tilden (Robert De Niro, scene-stealing in a small but pivotal role) into the town leads to Heflin discovering the area is actually a front for mob connections and corruption that is being orchestrated by Donlan.

Clip via Miramax

Following his breakthrough in the Oscar Best Picture winner Rocky, which Stallone wrote the screenplay for on top of starring in, the actor went on to become one of Hollywood's most popular action hero stars.

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That said, by the time 1997 came around, he had suffered a handful of critical flops. Most notable was 1992's much-mocked action comedy Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, but later in the decade came The Specialist, Judge Dredd, Assassins and Daylight.

With Cop Land, Stallone was hungry for change. He wanted to show that he could return to the more grounded character work of the original Rocky or First Blood. He was seeking to prove he did not need to only rely on cool one-liners or big muscles. In terms of the latter, the actor tellingly gained 40 pounds to play Cop Land's sheriff.

What strikes viewers right away about Stallone's portrayal of Heflin is how quiet and unshowy it is, with the actor doing surprisingly deft work playing not an action hero, but an ordinary man dealt a bad hand in life.

This is to such an extent that the early portions of Cop Land feel more like an ensemble piece with Stallone's sheriff almost fading into the background as the film sets up De Niro, Keitel and Liotta's characters.

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Clip via Movieclips

That said, you always feel Heflin on the fringes of the story, with Stallone's sad, haunted eyes conveying so much, whether it's as he watches the policemen in his local bar wishing he could be one of them, or the longing he feels for his crush (Annabella Sciorra), the woman he saved from drowning who has since married another cop.

It is clear from the actor's performance that Freddie is filled with disappointment and regret at how his life turned out, but that he still persists with his work because he believes in it and wants to help people.

And it's that which is the beauty of Cop Land. As it progresses, we witness this ordinary man - someone who swore off being a hero after all it cost him - stepping up to the call again and taking a stand against the villainous Donlan and his lackeys.

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And further to the movie's credit, even in its finale when it could devolve into over-the-top action, director James Mangold keeps proceedings relatively restrained with an elegant but thrilling climactic set-piece that hits hard because we believe in the man at the centre of it.

Clip via Movieclips

It would be impossible to talk about the film without mentioning its utterly stacked supporting cast. On top of the names mentioned already, it also features a post-Terminator 2 Robert Patrick giving another great evil performance as Donlan's right-hand man.

Patrick and Sciorra would later go on to have roles in The Sopranos, alongside Arthur J. Nascarella, Edie Falco, Frank Vincent, John Ventimiglia and Paul Herman, who are all in Cop Land too.

And there's more recognisable faces in its cast as well, with others including Cathy Moriarty, Janeane Garofalo, Method Man, Noah Emmerich, Paul Calderón, Peter Berg, as well as Blondie's Deborah Harry as a bartender.

Overall, Cop Land was a decent success, receiving solid reviews from critics and earning over $60 million at the box office on a $15 million budget.

That said, it did not become an awards player and did not make as much money as many Stallone vehicles.

In 2019, the actor said in an interview with Variety about the movie:  "I worked with the best director I ever worked with — James Mangold. I loved the film, but it actually worked in reverse.

"It was pretty good critically, but the fact that it didn’t do a lot of box office, again it fomented the opinion that I had my moment and was going the way of the dodo bird and the Tasmanian tiger."

While Stallone's next big hit would be 2006's much-loved Rocky Balboa, the sixth entry in the boxing franchise, the underseen Cop Land remains arguably his finest work to date and deserves to be seen by a larger audience.