You’re Gonna Be Redeemed: The Jersey Noir and Western Fable of James Mangold’s ‘Cop Land’

Photo credit: Sam Emerson © Miramax, Woods Entertainment, Across the River Productions
April 2, 2019


By Travis Woods

A rotating wire bookrack stands in a shaded corner of the used bookshop, its metal sleeves packed tight with yellowed, spine-split paperbacks. You spin the rack slowly, taking in the titles, bold-font pulp eyecatchers that skip from Westerns like Three-Ten to Yuma & Other Stories to hardboiled crime fiction like The Deep Blue Good-by. Stories of regret and violence and crime and redemption, of hard days in a rural frontier Town or modern claustrophobe nights in a depraved and decaying City. These Westerns and noir fictions, two genres blurring into one as you spin the rack faster now, merge in the creaking whirl as if both tell the same dime-store story, the same pulp myth—and in a way, they do: that of a tarnished man with a gun and badge, a Stetson or fedora shading his heavy eyes, who down these mean streets of hoof-trod dirt or rain-stained asphalt must go to right some fundamental wrong. You spin the rack faster, and within the dime novel tornado of its elemental story—because it’s always been one story—you can just make out the shape of that tarnished man, sitting deep inside the cheap woodpulp storm of painted book covers. And all that whipspun cover art clouds together, too, bright red paintings of Western lawmen framed by bloodied sunsets pooling into the midnight blue artwork of detectives ensnared by dark nights of urban corruption, these covers of varied reds and blues cycling over and over and over, and you can see the man more clearly now, see him huddled in that spinning red and blue as he looks up, and you can see as—

—Sheriff Freddy Heflin (Sylvester Stallone) stares with sleepy-eyed sorrow past the Hudson River. The red and blue spinning lights of his deputy’s cruiser cast rolling waves of color upon him. He sits on the north Jersey shoreline at night, tears rolling down his bloody cheeks as he takes in the serrated skyline of New York City in the dark distance. Behind him, his own police cruiser sits crumpled in a ditch, the lone exclamation point in an otherwise average night of drunken pinball playing at the local cop bar, The 4 Aces Tavern, and even drunker driving afterward. Looming above him, the double-decker hulk of the George Washington Bridge arcs across the Hudson, linking the rural Town world that has forever ensnared him to the dangerously wild promise of the City that forever denies him. He once foresaw a future for himself there, in New York City, a dream of a life in which he and the girl he loved escaped the dead-end quietude of Garrison, New Jersey. A dream in which he was true police, NYPD, and not this broken and bloated half-man sitting beneath a bridge like some sunken troll, wet with his blood and tears.

As Freddy sits on the outskirts of the Meadowlands frontier, watching both the unreachable City and its twisted and rippling inversion reflected in the river, a parallel story is taking place on the bridge above: NYPD hotshot Murray “Superboy” Babitch (Michael Rapaport) has, like Freddy, just drunkenly crashed his car. Superboy has, like Freddy, crunched his nose into bloodied mush. And like Freddy, his life will be forever altered by this night and its twinned car wrecks that both rupture and bond their two tales—the Jersey noir of Superboy, and the Western fable of Freddy—just as the GW Bridge binds the border Town of Garrison to the hardboiled City of New York. This is not just an impact of fates, but of the genres that contain them.


Freddy and Superboy’s lives are now the twisted and rippling river reflections of each other, just like that eerie and shimmering shadow-city that stretches across the glassy surface of the Hudson beneath the real New York… and yet they are also inversions of the other. Superboy is known as a hero cop who “saved five babies out in Redhook,” while Freddy is a town joke who lazily directs traffic and breaks up fights between schoolchildren. Superboy’s wreck attracts the attention of the NYPD, the media, and the mayor, while Freddy’s accident is beneath the lonely shadow of the GWB, unseen and uncared for. Freddy crashed his car swerving to miss a skittish deer; Superboy crashed after a high-speed chase climaxed with his shooting and killing two African-American motorists because he mistakenly believed one held a gun. Finally, Babitch is believed to have just leapt to his death from the GWB and into the black water below, convinced a grand jury will send him to prison for racially-motivated murder; two decades earlier, a teenaged Freddy bravely leapt from an overpass into a marsh to save a woman from drowning and permanently lost the hearing in his right ear as a result, an injury that forever barred him from joining the NYPD and damning him to a life lived in the bridge-shadow of others.

And now the lives of these two men are yoked together in ways neither could imagine—Freddy is as unware of the turmoil on the bridge above as the hiding and terrified Superboy is of the melancholy collision beneath it. As the officers on the bridge panic about a supposedly dead (but secretly very much alive) Superboy, the Sheriff below is thinking of his drowned past self, a boy who did a brave thing once and leapt into water to save a girl… only the thing that surfaced with her was this slowed and lumpen half-version of himself, pond-scummed and algae’d with a slickstain of failure and ambivalence, and rewarded for his brave deed with a life of squandered potential and missed opportunities. Perhaps, as the distant City mocks and teases him with its winking lights, Freddy even thinks of a line from his favorite Bruce Springsteen record, the one that goes, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true / Or is it something worse?”

The red and blue lights of the deputy’s cruiser cascade over him in their endless repetition, as endless and unchanging as his monaural life sentence of lazy days and lonely nights, 20 years inside the invisible prison of ineffectuality and lack of purpose, the terrible lie of his dream hanging over his life like the black cataract of night sky over the Meadowlands frontier.

Endless and unchanging until tonight, that is, when paths will begin to cross, alliances will break, and genres will merge, lines of force all braided into one story and the cataclysmic choice Freddy will make to end it.


This is Cop Land, and it starts on the noisy and nosebashed night of Freddy Heflin’s 42nd birthday.

It will end, though, on the soundless and bloody morning of his rebirth.


~ ~ ~

“Something that drove me and the story a little harder.”

That’s what writer-director James Mangold wanted after completing his debut film Heavy in 1995, and it’s what he’d need in order to transition from that first film’s indie drama to the hard-edged and Dickensian crime-fable sprawl of its follow up, 1997’s Cop Land. A dark, novel-dense mosaic about a small north Jersey town populated by corrupted NYPD officers, their families, and the local sheriff who’s spent his adult life looking the other way, Cop Land began as a collection of compelling ideas and characters in need of a dual genre superstructure to convey them. Something that would drive Mangold beyond the moody quietude of Heavy and allow him “to write a movie that wasn’t so ephemeral,” as he told Tod Lippy in 1997:

“I had been thinking about making a movie like this for some time. I grew up in a town in the Hudson Valley of New York where a lot of cops and firemen from NYC had bought one-acre plots. It was during the seventies, when there was this ‘white flight’ from the city. Many of the friends I went to school with were children of civil servants in NYC, so I was exposed to a lot of this anger about the Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods that had changed—gone ethnic—and the city that had betrayed them—gone liberal—and how these changes had caused them to set out and make a new home for themselves and their families.”

“As I would tell people about this odd population in my hometown, it always occurred to me that there were certain parallels with the issues of the frontier and the Old West. A new land, a fresh start for some gun-toting men and their families, a sense of community being with others of like minds and similar anger—and a uniting fear of what they had escaped catching up with them.”


Mangold was already exploring this idea in the early 1990s when, at the same time, the United States was galvanized on both coasts by police corruption and criminality—in April of 1992, Los Angeles was set aflame by riots in reaction to the acquittal of four LAPD officers charged with excessive force in the arrest of Rodney King; later, in June of ‘92, New York City mayor David Dinkins appointed the Mollen Commission to investigate allegations of widespread corruption in the NYPD. There was a dark thrum in the air, a deepening public awareness of the marrow-deep venality metastasizing throughout all levels of urban law enforcement, a moral rot that Mangold could connect back to the bridge-and-tunnel NYPD officers who sought suburban haven in his hometown. “There was a consistent theme that ran through many of these stories: often these cops-gone-bad were commuters… who found themselves risking their lives protecting a place they had no personal stake in.”

From that vantage, Mangold was able to craft the more noir-inflected crime-drama half of the dichotomous Cop Land: the story of the fictional Garrison, New Jersey, a small town more or less settled by NYPD lieutenant Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel), who works in New York’s 37th Precinct. Garrison is a town untouched by the urban decay that Donlan and other officers—like his enforcers, officers Jack Rucker (Robert Patrick) and Frank Lagonda (Arthur Nascarella), his former compatriot-turned-undercover-burnout Gary Figgis (Ray Liotta), and his nephew, Murray “Superboy” Babitch—must stare down every day. Donlan sees Garrison as a sanctuary for himself and other lawmen who must “cross that bridge every day to a place where everything is upside down. Where the cop is the perp, and the perp is the victim.” For Donlan and his people, Garrison is “a place where things make sense, and you can walk across the street without fear.”

It’s an outlook not shared by everyone, including Internal Affairs detective Moe Tilden (Robert De Niro), a former New York Police Academy classmate of Ray’s who sees Garrison “like an island out of my reach, I see this beautiful island shining through this fog… every house financed by one of two mob banks.” Tilden suspects Ray has brokered a deal with the New York mafia, allowing them to run millions of dollars’ worth of drugs unmolested through the 37th Precinct in exchange for extraordinarily cheap, low-interest loans from mob-funded banks given to officers who then purchased all the land and houses in Garrison. It’s a suspicion Tilden can do nothing about, though, as “my jurisdiction ends, in a sense, at the George Washington Bridge. But half the men I watch live beyond that bridge… where no one’s watching.” Bound by red tape, Tilden can only theorize and suspect. That is, until Garrison resident and NYPD officer Superboy Babitch kills two men on the GWB and then leaps to his “death” (i.e., is hidden in Ray’s trunk and driven back to Garrison in secret)—all of which gives Tilden the excuse he needs to start leaning on Garrison, looking for someone to be his eyes (and ear) in town, as he not only believes that Superboy is alive, but that Ray has cemented his secret pact with the mob by ordering the murder of another officer who knew too much.


The Garrison resident Tilden reaches out to for help is the same man Ray has already selected to ”protect” the town and his interests when he leaves for New York every day. The man who leads a whopping law enforcement staff of three (including himself) for a cop town that already has the lowest crime rate in north Jersey, and whose most pressing duty is to “make sure the kids don’t kill themselves on prom night.” A half-deaf and soft-spoken loner, loser, and wannabe cop named Freddy Heflin.


~ ~ ~

“I asked myself who would be the most interesting character to follow in a town full of cops,” Mangold told Lippy, “and the answer I came up with—already feeling the western vibe of the setting—was the local sheriff.”

The story of a conflicted NYPD cop who kills two men he mistakenly thought were armed, and is then hidden and protected within an entire suburb of angry, corrupted police officers—not so much a thin blue line as a thick blue town—was more than enough story to sustain the narrative and thematic demands of a two-hour hardboiled crime flick, with the multi-character expanse of Superboy’s fall from grace a complexly-plotted Mamet-meets-Pileggi universe of intersecting short stories already overbrimming with a murderers’ row of acting talent. Still, Mangold was set on driving further beyond the ephemera of Heavy, and even further past the unyielding flintiness of a Scorsese-ian New York cop movie, ultimately conjoining that crime film with a mode of storytelling even more uniquely American:

“I found myself continually attracted in the thought process to Westerns, because to me they somehow have this very formal quality, and a lot of character—certainly a lot more than modern action films… they were generally these amazing character pieces about a man caught in a real moral crisis—where, in a sense, law, righteousness, right or wrong, were all up to him to define… The films that rang over and over in my head when I was writing this were Shane and 3:10 to Yuma.”


Like those Western classics, Cop Land needed that archetypical character in moral crisis to act as a foil to the neo-noir of the film’s corrupt cop story, a near-mythological cowboy figure who wasn’t an action hero or superman (or even Superboy), but simply a person who develops a code, and then cannot yield from it. As a character archetype, the Western sheriff is such a primordial element intrinsically cat’s-cradled into the American mythos that the bracing light he could blast against the inhabitants of Cop Land’s modern world would be bright enough to stretch their shadows (including his own) beyond their initial gritty realism and force them to take on the outsized tragi-epic dimensions of pure fable.

Initially, Mangold had approached actor Gary Sinise for the central role of the compromised Sheriff Freddy Heflin (a hat-tip to character actor Van Heflin, who in both Shane and the original 3:10 to Yuma played put-upon men of decency caught in the middle of epic struggles between law and lawlessness, and also starred as morally-conflicted men in need of redemption in such ‘40s hardboiled noirs as Act of Violence and Johnny Eager). As Mangold recalls in an excellent interview with Birth.Movies.Death’s Priscilla Page, Sinise “didn’t want to make the movie because the part wasn’t sexy enough… and I didn’t think the part was supposed to be sexy. I thought that’s absolutely not what it was supposed to be. He’s supposed to be an underdog in a big way. ‘Sexy’ is not a word I use for underdogs all the time. I was devastated because I didn’t think the movie was gonna happen.”

Despite the fact that Cop Land was a hot script picked up by Miramax (still basking in the intense Pulp Fiction afterglow) with one of the most prestigious casts of the 1990s, it was still a film without an actor for its central role. A role its writer-director knew required a performance that was unsexy, unflashy, and far afield from the formulaic action heroes of the day.

Enter, improbably, Sylvester Stallone.


Though the action star seemed to represent everything that was the opposite of Sheriff Helfin, with his blockbuster career, outsized ego, and a body cabled with biology-defying muscle (adds Mangold: “… the Planet Hollywood posse, and the leather jackets…”), Stallone loved the script. Mangold, however, had no interest in Stallone as Freddy whatsoever, feeling at the time that “he’s become a cartoon of himself, I don’t like any of his films but his first Rocky,” and that the star would refuse to gain the necessary weight, would demand changes in the script, and use his experience as a writer-director himself to interfere with the production. Stallone, to his credit, listened to each of Mangold’s concerns and promised to be a team player. Mangold remembers that Stallone countered the director’s apprehensions, “telling me how tired he was of making the same kind of movies. ‘I want to wake up and not be sure I can handle the work of the day.’ He wanted to feel alive again.”

Ironically (though perhaps only in retrospect), Stallone was actually quite uniquely suited for the role of Freddy. By the mid-90s, he had suffered a string of duds (Rocky V, Oscar, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, The Specialist, Judge Dredd, Assassins, Daylight) with only a smattering of recent successes (Cliffhanger, Demolition Man), having all but erased from public consciousness the fact that he had been a young artist who had crafted the deeply humanistic script for Rocky, and laid his soul bare in that film’s fearless lead performance. Like Freddy Heflin, Stallone had done something amazing once, had wrenched something truly remarkable from himself… and then never lived up to that promise again, instead becoming more and more of an easy joke due to his poor choices, a nearly-forgotten relic that the world had finally left behind. Further, in famously (and infamously) gaining 40 pounds to play the slovenly Heflin, Stallone was able to use his unique status as a bodybuilding superstar to his advantage—for audiences to see the man they knew as the rippling, muscle-veined John Rambo as a chubby, out-of-shape average schlub served only to highlight the degree of Freddy’s blown potential. A body that we the audience knew to be capable of near-perfection was now a wasteland of sloughed-off muscle and accumulated fat, a physical metaphor that rendered Freddy a fallen totem of regret, a hulking ruin of inaction.

Had the gifts that Stallone brought to the production been only physical, though, the delicate balance of Cop Land’s genre interplay—the Western half of which rested almost entirely on Stallone’s shoulders—would have collapsed. Instead, Stallone performed a kind of pop miracle, bringing to bear not only his best performance since Rocky, but the very best performance of his entire career. Reeling from his burnout in the action superstar arena, Stallone reached deep into himself and excavated the kind of performance he had begun to cultivate (and had subsequently abandoned) with the original Rocky. A performance of nuance and depth, of quiet grace and without flair or grandstanding.


Take, for instance, Stallone’s finest scene in the film (and, by extension, of his entire filmography). In it, Freddy is sitting alone in his home while Ray and the rest of the officers of the 37th blatantly throw a going-away party for Superboy in Garrison, whom they initially plan to smuggle out of state to a new life. Freddy’s soul is already weighted with Moe Tilden’s whispered revelations and allegations of Ray’s corruption, corruption that Freddy has blithely ignored in exchange for Ray’s patronizing friendship and acceptance; it’s a weight that only gets heavier when he is visited by Liz Randone (Annabella Sciorra), the woman he rescued from a sinking car 20 years earlier, sacrificing his hearing and his future for her life. They’ve remained friends ever since, with Freddy nursing a helpless and obvious love for her, while she married an adulterous cop and had children. Together they sit and listen to Bruce Springsteen’s mournful “Stolen Car,” and she tearfully admits she owes him her life. After taking in the sadness of his home—a junkdrawered wasteland of years’ worth of NYPD academy rejection letters, vinyl records, and mini-cityscapes of empty beer bottles—she asks why he never married. In a voice so muted with the sorrow of squandered decades as to be barely audible, his eyes shining with restrained tears and unable to meet her gaze, Freddy does his best to weakly smile and whisper, “all the best girls were taken.” It’s a moment of startling, naked vulnerability—this is not the godbodied millionaire action hero nor the international star, but the raw and hungry-to-prove-himself artist we had not seen since 1976, now blown forward into middle age and using his craft to convey the gravest yet most quotidian pain of the human condition: that life passes us by, and some dreams never do come true.

This is the inimitable, muted magic Stallone brings to Freddy—both are men of early success and unused promise, men who grew more and more underestimated with every year and every wrong decision, men who both, in the words of Mangold, “wanted to feel alive again.” Stallone’s performance, and Mangold’s script, position Freddy as a man at the bottom of his life, waiting for a spark to reignite his dormant sense of purpose. And when that spark sets him alight, Freddy, like Stallone, shines brighter than anyone could have predicted, marching with his gun and his badge and his newfound code down a dark street to whatever fate his duty will lead him… and in doing so, he wrests this tale out of the world of Jersey noir and into the elevated realm of the Western fable.

“What’s interesting to me,” Mangold later noted, “is that almost every major event on a plot level in the movie is discreet from the separate character story of this guy living on the outskirts. I mean, if you didn’t have Freddy in the film, you’d pretty much have a cop movie. Freddy is the Western.”


~ ~ ~

A constant river of sound subsumes and drowns Freddy, endless currents of noise that his single working ear simply cannot process, and he is left overwhelmed to the point of paralysis—moral paralysis. The sound is that of voices, and the voices belong to the police who surround him, their warring philosophies and outlooks pulling him beneath the river’s choppy surface with indecision:

Ray Donlan has spent years grooming and manipulating Freddy; nursing Freddy’s desperate dreams of law enforcement by appointing him sheriff, and then leaning on themes of brotherhood, family, and the thin blue line to justify his corruption and corner-cutting to Freddy as a necessary evil to protect the brave officers of their small town; in return, Freddy has abandoned his true duty as sheriff and allowed Ray to lord over Garrison unopposed—until he witnesses Ray sneaking Superboy into town, and learns Ray secretly plans to murder Superboy to prevent him from confessing and bringing Internal Affairs into Garrison as a result.


Moe Tilden plays to Freddy’s need to feel like true police (“You may be law enforcement, and so am I, but you are not a cop”), trying to goad him towards a sense of duty and justice that Tilden can use to flush out Ray and his cohorts (later, musing about Freddy: “That cupcake makes a mess, we got a case again”); but when Freddy drags his feet and hesitates, not wanting to get involved, the NYC mayor shuts down Tilden’s investigation into the Superboy case. It’s only after Freddy recognizes the depths of Ray’s corruption, and how that corruption has tainted not just Ray, not just Freddy, but their entire town, that he reaches out to Tilden for help. But by then, it’s too late, with Tilden bound by bureaucratic red tape and bellowing “YOU BLEW IT” in Freddy’s one good ear as the sadsack sheriff implores him. “I need to do something,” Freddy pleads before leaving Tilden’s office. “I need to do this for myself.”

Finally, Liotta’s Gary Figgis preaches to Freddy a kind of aggrieved, nihilistic selfishness, arguing that the universe is such a “deep and dark motherfuck” that Freddy must look out for only himself. When the corruption consuming Garrison continues to rise and Freddy can no longer pretend it doesn’t exist, he tells Figgis that he’s going to bring in Superboy, “and for once, everybody in this town’s gonna tell the truth.” Figgis can only scream at him that “being right is not a bulletproof vest, Freddy!” before skipping town to avoid the disaster he sees coming.

This constant river of sound twists and pulls at Freddy, pooling within his single functioning ear, its violent currents lashing and pulling him in three directions at once. Unlike, say, the similarly sprawling ‘90s crime epic Heat, which exists on—and is a study of—the furthest extremes of law and criminality, Cop Land exists in the middle, with Freddy, and is about the choice of which extreme he will side. And when that river of arguments and philosophies and manipulations washes Freddy up beneath the Garrison water tower late one evening, he makes his decision. There, he finds that the tower appears bucolic and normal on the outside, but is blackened and rotted and hollow on the inside like a cavity-riddled tooth, a microcosm of Garrison’s pastoral evil. And it is in that empty tower that Freddy finds Superboy hiding from the murderous Ray. It’s where these twined genre avatars finally meet and their stories become one, a story of a dishonored frontier lawman catalyzed towards goodness. A neo-noir, a cop movie, a Western, a fable—in all, there is the mythic image of a hero who walks down the center line of main street to confront and embrace his best destiny, and when Freddy does the same, the straight reality of Cop Land fogs into something grander, more elemental, and the world around him heightens into that of the pure Western.


Freddy marches into The 4 Aces Tavern and tells Ray his plans for Superboy: “I’m taking him in tomorrow morning at 6:00. That’s in a few hours. I’d like you to come with me, Ray.” Despite all of Ray’s protestations, bargains, and threats, he cannot dissuade Freddy, who only responds with the truth: “I look at this town… and I don’t like what I see anymore.” When Ray makes his final threat, and asks Freddy who he thinks he is, Freddy answers back six words with all the simplicity of the man we’ve come to know as well as with the profundity that is awakening within him, six words that establish his code, his duty, and his acceptance of his place standing against the deep and dark motherfuck:

“The sheriff of Garrison, New Jersey.”

Like Van Helfin in 3:10 to Yuma, Freddy then waits at the station for the 6:00 to New York, loading his shotgun, eyeing the clock in his office and Superboy waiting in his cell. And at 6:00, like the boy he was 20 years earlier, Freddy dives back into the water one more time. But this dive is a truer bravery than before, as this is a man who now knows the cost of doing the right thing, who has been ravaged by it, and dives back into its impenetrably black waters anyway.

And it’s there, in those deep waters, that he once again pays a terrible cost: Ray sends Rucker and Lagonda to kidnap Superboy, and as punishment Rucker fires his gun next to Freddy’s one good ear, completely deafening him. Freddy howls, his ear oozing blood, his voice reaching an otherworldly pitch as if to announce some essential transmogrification of his soul: he cannot hear anything, and the voices that have held him back for so long are now gone. He staggers alone through Garrison, shotgun in hand, in total silence, the once half-heard world now totally separate from him. He is free, no longer Freddy the loser, Freddy the joke. He is Sheriff Heflin, and he marches through the town in a ringing murk of deafness that may as well be the steady, muffled roar he last heard at the bottom of a marsh when he was 19. The cop drama is gone now. Freddy’s story has drowned it out, and all that is left is this story of the American frontier.


It’s in that silent frontier that Freddy—with the help a returning, guilt-ridden Figgis—takes down Ray’s cadre of killers that morning, despite receiving a bullet to the shoulder. And it’s there that he shoots Ray, who, with his dying breaths, silently curses and screams at Freddy. The sheriff stands over him, and in a whisper makes clear his victory was not in shooting his mentor, but in turning away from him:

“I can’t hear you, Ray.”

No more sounds of anguished Springsteen records, of Figgis’ nihilism, of Moe’s didacticism, of Ray’s duplicity. There is only the steady, unyielding sound of his own pulse, his own drum that he lost 20 years ago doing a brave thing…and regained 20 years later by being even braver. As Stallone said during a Q&A about cinematic heroes nearly a decade later:

“The people I respect are the ones who take it on the chin every day, the ones who don’t have a lot of money or a lot of muscles or a lot of genetic gifts, but what they have is an abundance of heart. Those are the characters that appeal to me. The only film in which I’ve portrayed a person like that is Cop Land. Non-physical courage is the most profound courage of all.”

Freddy’s bravery is rooted in knowing there is no prize waiting for him at the bottom of this deep and terrifying dive; there is only the knowledge that it is the right thing to do, and his newfound code will allow for nothing else. That knowledge is what makes Freddy as much a hero as the long line of mythic gunslingers and goodhearted men and women in the fictions and films and fables that have preceded him.


Despite that, Freddy’s story was not especially celebrated at first—upon its release in 1997, the film struggled to find an audience. Critics seemed disappointed that an all-star prestige Miramax film wasn’t, essentially, Pulp Fiction 2. As Mangold told Page, “a lot of people missed Cop Land. We hit a weird scene with the movie where it just wasn’t quite Quentin enough to grab—and I mean that with admiration for Quentin—I’m much more conservative… it wasn’t like this incredible soundtrack of pop music, and it was kind of a Sidney Lumet movie with a lot of these actors in it, and this kind of odd Western motif braided through the whole thing.” Elsewhere, general moviegoers seemed confounded by Stallone’s presence in the film, with arthouse audiences avoiding what they assumed was yet another Sly action flick / cop movie, and hardcore action fans who bought tickets expecting to see something in the vein of Stallone’s Cobra were handed a deliberately-paced multi-genre exploration of morality and character that kaleidoscopes elements of 3:10 to Yuma, Prince of the City, and Peyton Place into one unique and variegated vision.

With time, though, the film’s stature has grown, its reputation taken root, and its excellence recognized by more and more film fans. Mangold has continued his exploration of genre (going so far as to direct the excellent 3:10 to Yuma remake in 2007; a decade later, he made Logan, a powerful and devastating superhero film that wed elements of Shane and Paper Moon to the X-Men universe), and while Stallone has more or less returned to the world of action filmmaking in the years since its release, he has layered his recent work in films like Rocky Balboa, Creed, and Creed II with the kind of vulnerability, heart, and humanism that he so devastatingly portrayed in Cop Land as Freddy Heflin, the man at the whirring center of that dime-store tornado of hardboiled noir and Western fable. The man who crossed the bridge between two worlds, two cities, two genres, deaf and bloody but with a drive and purpose and steel that renders him nearly unrecognizable from the drunk and tearful man that once sat beneath the GWB. The man who marched Murray “Superboy” Babitch to Moe Tilden’s office on a crisp grey New York morning, having crossed the bridge, having dived back into the black water that took so much from him. As he marches through a crowd of angry, resentful police, he cannot hear their jeers and slurs, or feel their elbows and fists, he sees only the offices of Internal Affairs and the face of a shocked, quietly impressed Tilden, who recognizes the bloody man approaching him as the law. Together they take Superboy into the building, unfazed by the angry mob of police, unable to feel in the harsh light of day the piercing red and blue spinning lights of nearby cruisers—

—that slowly comes to rest as you stop spinning it, the red and blue haze of cover art dissolving back into individual paperbacks held tight by the wire frame of the slowing bookrack. You take in these pulp stories of good vs. evil, all these tales of regret and violence and crime and redemption that always manage to catch your eye when you drift into a used bookshop, these dime-store dreams of our worst instincts and our best selves. Stories of frontier towns, of mob-mauled neighborhoods, of innocent people in need of help, of second chances, and the heroes that fight for them. The cowboys. The beat cops. The vigilantes. The hardcases. The crooks-gone-straight. The gumshoe detectives. The sheriff of Garrison, New Jersey.

Travis Woods lives in Los Angeles. He has a dog and a tattoo of Elliott Gould smoking. Bob Dylan once clapped him on the back and whispered something incomprehensible. These are the only interesting things about him. Read more »


I look back at all my movies and see what I would do differently, of course. I mean, I’m an active artist, so that I never just sit, look at my work and go “It’s perfect.” But at the same time, I’m deeply proud of Cop Land, and with distance what I cherish most is the script, I thought the ideas in the script were really interesting, and the idea of this half-deaf sheriff who gets his ears blown out at the end of the movie and, in a way, finds his strength at the moment he can no longer hear the voices that were putting him down. I thought that the writing was great, I’m really proud when I look back at the kind of a musicality very much inspired by people like David Mamet, and Nick Pileggi and many others, but that kind of musicality of New York top speak was something that I worked very hard to learn and try to speak with. Lastly, of course, I’m really proud of the cast, which are relationships that I still have tremendously warm feelings towards. Particularly Bob De Niro, who was really phenomenally supportive of me behind the scenes. He has a very warm and very honest presence, and his father was a painter, my father was a painter, we lived near each other in New York, and I think it was a very primal level where Bob felt a kind of an identification or a kind of sympathy or empathy for me. You know, going from a movie of the scale of Heavy to the scale of Cop Land, and the kind of cast, Bob was really a very important force. Not only in that movie, but in my development, he gave me a lot of confidence for what came ahead. Stallone… I just ran into Sly about three weeks ago, just running errands in LA. And it was so lovely to see him. I have a lot of affection for him, as well, many of the cast members, and the whole experience of leading that kind of an ensemble was a magnificent experience and really a kind of a trial by fire that when I got to the other side, I felt that I had gone to war or something. There was no way I would ever be the same. I wrote a script starring actors of this caliber and star power, and I survived, the Weinsteins, that system, all of it. I was a much tougher, stronger person at the end. All those memories come back to me when I see the movie. —‘Be Inspired to Try Things, Miracles Happen When Someone Takes a Chance’: A Conversation with James Mangold


Screenwriter must-read: James Mangold’s screenplay for Cop Land [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film (116-minute Director’s Cut) is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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Commentary with writer/director James Mangold, producer Cathy Konrad, and actors Sylvester Stallone and Robert Patrick: “With Mangold steering most of the conversation, all of the participants provide an informative and entertaining track. Lots of amusing stories are shared about what it was like working with such a legendary ensemble, including some candid anecdotes about a few polite disagreements that occurred on-set. Stallone describes how he achieved his physical transformation and confesses to being a little intimidated by De Niro. Mangold also details the major differences between the theatrical edit and the director’s cut by pointing out all the additional footage. Filled with interesting production trivia this is a very strong commentary that fans should definitely check out.” —High-Def Digest

Cop Land: The Making of an Urban Western highlights pre-production, casting, filming and editing, and features interviews with the cast and crew.

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of James Mangold’s Cop Land. Photographed by Sam Emerson © Miramax, Woods Entertainment, Across the River Productions. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.


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