18 June 2009

COP LAND (Dir. James Mangold, 1997, US) - 'I look at this town, and I don't like what I see...'

Stallone meets De Niro in 'Cop Land'

Art house film making tends to be defined by a strong and consistent authorial presence throughout the cinematic contours of the film in question. However, the same cannot be said of mainstream Hollywood cinema especially genre films which take an added pleasure in shaping the narrative so that it largely conforms to a compelling linearity. Such is the case with James Mangold’s urban western, ‘Cop Land’, a contemporary updating of both Zinneman’s starkly classical ‘High Noon’ and Hawk’s redemptive ‘Rio Bravo’. In the main lead and cast against type is Sylvester Stallone as Freddy Heflin, the humble Sheriff of Garrison, New Jersey. What makes this urban western transcend the label of competent mainstream cinema is Mangold’s confident and mature execution of what amounts to an old fashioned morality tale. To a certain degree, much of the simple black and white morality is a thematic allusion back to the traditional narratives evident in the films of John Ford and Anthony Mann. I think Mangold is not really given enough credit for the expertise and variation with which he has been able to succinctly shift from a range of popular genres, producing films that feature notable performances from mainstream Hollywood actors and an appreciation for both challenging and reinforcing genre conventions.

With a body of work, comprising of a probing prison movie ('Girl Interrupted'), an insightful musical biopic on Johnny Cash ('Walk the Line'), and an out and out action oriented western ('3:10 To Yuma'), Mangold’s eclectic range is perhaps more indicative of a film maker working in the studio era. Though I am a huge fan of 'Walk the Line', I would still consider ‘Cop Land’ to be Mangold’s finest film to date. It’s such a lean genre film with a career defining performance from Stallone and a magnificently staged ending (daringly original use of sound for a mainstream genre film) that makes one wonder how the joys of narrative cinema if executed with the necessary bravura can be as equally captivating as any serious art house or independent film on police corruption. Stallone’s dim witted Hefflin is supported by an array of unsavoury and despicable police officers, performed by a strong ensemble cast made up of Robert De Niro, Harvey Kietel, Ray Liotta and Robert Patrick.

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