There Goes the Neighborhood

At the end of Dirty Harry, Eastwood's Harry Callahan threw away his badge in disgust, just like Gary Cooper in High Noon. And wouldn't you know Cop Land is full of High Noon references? Freddy, all alone, stands up to the bad guys when his deputies desert him. Mangold wants to blend the Scorsese crime thriller with the socially conscious Western, and it doesn't parse. We end up sorting out all the film references instead of being drawn into the drama.

And when we are drawn in, we want out. Near the start of the film, Ray's cop nephew Murray (Michael Rapaport) shoots dead two black joy riders after they sideswipe him and then apparently point a rifle at him. (It turns out the rifle wasn't a rifle at all.) Fearing criminal charges and a racial vendetta against the NYPD, Murray, with his cop buddies' assistance, fakes his own death by pretending to jump off the George Washington Bridge. But then things get too hot, and Ray and Co. want to eliminate Murray for real. Behind all this is the notion that white policemen can't get a break in a system that kowtows to racial pressure groups; the cops tear themselves apart because nobody, not even the mayor, will stand up for them. At least the Mob takes care of them.

In its attitudes, Cop Land isn't so very far from the recent 187, in which a black teacher played by Samuel L. Jackson turns vigilante against the scum in his inner-city classroom because the "authorities" are too cravenly liberal to help. Both films pay lip service to the "tragedy" of taking the law into your own hands, but you can sense what's really going on. 187 panders to the audience's scummiest reactionary feelings of retribution. Cop Land, even though it posits Ray and the others as dirtbags, lets us know it's the liberal lawmakers who dirtied them. New York City is displayed as a haven for the wrong element, and we're left with little doubt as to who that element might be.

If Mangold had really been serious about this stuff, he might have explored the psychology of beleaguered cops who are made to feel like they are the perpetrators in their own busts. He could have dug deeply into the way police work can gnarl a cop's sympathies and prompt his own worst impulses. Mangold never ventures beyond the obvious. We're set up with righteous anger against the liberal establishment and then fobbed off with goombah melodramatics. The film should be called Cop Out.

Cop Land.
Written and directed by James Mangold; with Sylvester Stallone, Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Annabella Sciorra, Michael Rapaport, Ray Liotta, Cathy Moriarty, Peter Berg, and Janeane Garofalo.

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