Cop Land is a movie that almost invites pity: Saddled with the burdens of returning artistic legitimacy to Sylvester Stallone, a once-in-a-lifetime cast of New York's Finest Scorsese Vets, and a next-big-thing hype reminiscent of the marketing of the far-flashier Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting, the expectations are almost too great for understated writer/director James Mangold (Heavy) to fulfill. Fortunately, once those expectations have been set aside, Cop Land emerges as a first-rate morality play in the form of an effective, if occasionally unwieldy, crime drama. Stallone plays the sheriff of a small New Jersey town populated by New York City policemen with corruption in their blood. Though he also knows what it's like to hide behind the badge, Stallone slowly awakens to a higher sense of duty when an internal-affairs officer (Robert DeNiro) asks his help in investigating some mysterious goings-on related to the apparent death of ringleading-cop Harvey Keitel's nephew (Michael Rappaport). Cop Land's labyrinthine plot occasionally gets the better of it—characters are required at times to mouth exposition simply to clear things up—and the Dragnet-style moral-of-the-story narration is an unforgivable touch. Most of the time, however, it's a convincing thriller with the strong sense of place and character Mangold brought to Heavy. (The strong female characters of that film are sadly absent, however, despite the marginal presences of Cathy Moriarty, Janeane Garofalo, and Annabella Sciorra.) Stallone does a fine job in his sad-sack role, eventually becoming the Gary Cooper figure in a High Noon in which the bad guys are not only in the town, they are the town. It's a subtle performance that may not make up for 20 years of Demolition Man and its ilk, but it's a start. Cop Land is an encouraging and entertaining sophomore effort for Mangold; here's hoping he's not overwhelmed by the impossible hopes of others.
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