Cop Land, released in August of 1997, was a relatively run-of-the-mill cop corruption thriller that’s distinguished by featuring one of the best casts ever assembled for a crime film.
The film, directed by James Mangold, arrived 25 years ago, and it was clearly inspired by the Sidney Lumet-directed crime pictures of the 1970s, especially Serpico. And it told that story by collecting a cast of crime movie A-Listers, including all sorts of performers who had been in Martin Scorsese movies, would later pop up on The Sopranos, and in several cases, both.
Cop Land did have a pretty good hook: There’s a fictional New Jersey hamlet called Garrison (located about where Fort Lee or Weehawken really is), where a huge unit of NYPD cops all live.
New York City cops were required at the time to live within the city limits, but these cops have exploited a loophole that allows cops to moonlight as transit cops. This allows them de facto control of the town, much to the consternation of Garrison’s actual sheriff, Freddy (Sylvester Stallone). Something of a sad sack, Freddy lost hearing in one ear, which has kept him from his dream of joining the NYPD.
That crew of cops is played by a murderer’s row of gangster movie veterans, led by Harvey Keitel and Ray Liotta, and also including sometime Sopranos hands like Robert Patrick and Arthur J. Nascarella, along with Peter Berg, and even John Spencer (playing a guy named Leo, two years before The West Wing started.) And Robert De Niro has some memorable scenes as an internal affairs investigator, who gets the film’s most memorable line, while his Raging Bull co-star Cathy Moriarty also pops up.
The cast also includes various others who would appear on The Sopranos, including Frank Vincent as a police union, Annabella Sciorra as a cop’s wife, Paul “Beansie” Herman, and even bit parts for Edie Falco, John “Artie Bucco” Ventimiglia and Tony Sirico. It’s not that surprising, since both the movie and show were cast with New York actors, only a couple of years apart, and crime movies (and shows) tend to attract the same faces.
When a young cop tied in with the Garrison crew (Michael Rapaport) accidentally kills two Black kids on the George Washington Bridge, the corrupt cops conspire to cover up the crime by faking his death.
The film explores some things that corrupt-cop movies often leave out, from tension between urban and suburban cops to an emphasis being placed on super-powerful police unions. But it’s most good cops vs. bad cops, without having much wider to say about policing in America.
The Film’s Legacy
Cop Land is not an all-time classic crime or police corruption film. Mangold was still getting his feet wet as a director at the time, and while the cast is filled with noted actors, none really did their most remarkable work. The film also gets a little silly at times, as police corruption isn’t typically solved by protracted shootouts between good and bad cops.
The film also gets lost a bit in the shuffle of the late-summer/fall 1997 movie calendar, with another film about corrupt cops, L.A. Confidential, coming out weeks later and sort of achieving a great-movie aura that Cop Land never quite did. That fall also produced The Ice Storm, Boogie Nights, Good Will Hunting, and eventually Titanic, which exemplified the Hollywood of 1997 more than Cop Land did.
If you’re looking for a re-examination, however, Cop Land is streaming on HBO Max.