By the time that CopLand was released in 1997, Sylvester Stallone hadn’t had a hit in ages. The last half-way successful film he stared in was 1993’s Cliffhanger, and his last bona fide, $100 million plus box-office bonanza was way back in 1985 with the back-to-back releases Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rocky IV. The studios were starting to see Stallone not as the 1980’s money-making, pop-culture symbol he ascended to during the height of his legend, but as box-office poison and responsible for some costly— in some cases legendary—flops. This one-time Hollywood god was on one of the nastiest streaks any actor would suffer, a streak that some would argue reached legendary status. Just take a look at this filmography and the grosses:
12/6/96 Daylight $33,023,469
10/6/95 Assassins $30,303,072
6/30/95 Judge Dredd $34,693
10/7/94 The Specialist $57,362,582
10/8/93 Demolition Man $58,055,768
5/28/93 Cliffhanger $84,049,
2/21/92 Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot! $28,411,210
4/26/91 Oscar $23,562,716
11/16/90 Rocky V $40,946
12/22/89 Tango & Cash $63,408,614
8/4/89 Lock Up $22,099
5/25/88 Rambo III $53,715
2/13/87 Over the Top $16,057,580
5/23/86 Cobra $49,042,224
11/27/85 Rocky IV $127,873,716
5/22/85 Rambo: First Blood Part II $150,415,432
Stallone needed a clean break, a role that would shake up his image, and, hopefully, make audiences take note of him once again. Enter James Mangold. The fledgling director was coming off his first feature, a well-received indie titled Heavy,which would also serve as the vehicle that helped Liv Tyler transition from “that other girl who isn’t Alicia Silverstone” in Aerosmith’s Crazy video to serious actress—maybe he could help Stallone with a much needed career makeover. Mangold was looking to cast the actor as the lead in his next film, CopLand, a story about a mild-mannered, small-town sheriff tasked with policing a New Jersey town populated entirely by New York cops and their families. What should have been the gig of a lifetime turns sour when corruption and murder bubbles to the surface bringing with it an Internal Affairs investigator tasked with cleaning up the department, putting Stallone’s character’s conscience at odds with his friends and neighbors. The role would represent a significant departure from Stallone’s comfort zone; he hadn’t taken on a true underdog role since the original Rocky, and since that served as the role that took him from starving actor, struggling to get a break, to arguably the brightest Hollywood star in the Reagan era, it seemed like a good bet that audiences would greet the actor and his new role with open arms.
But Stallone wouldn’t stop at just taking on a risky part; he decided to tear into the role with a vigor he hadn’t displayed in decades. He took a page out of the method actor’s playbook, developing his character, Freddy Heflin, from the ground up. The actor developed a gait that communicated the weariness of a man who has routinely been passed over professionally, largely ignored by colleagues and even the woman he loves, and on top of that, he gained 40 pounds, effectively stripping the actor of the strength and confidence that had become the hallmarks Stallone had built his career on. Taking on the role of Heflin meant that all he would have to rely on was his acting chops—a task that he not only rose to but also managed to surpass expectations by a Mississippi mile, creating one of his most nuanced and moving performances in his career.
The role of Freddy Heflin was a risk, but so was the film—Cop Land is an urban western, a genre that hadn’t been popular for many moons with Hollywood types or with audiences since the decline of the studio system in the 1960s. Even the name Freddy Heflin is an homage to the actor Van Heflin, who would star in the 1957 version of 3:10 to Yuma, which Mangold would go on to remake in 2007. To help camouflage the film’s roots, the studio and director brought in a cast almost entirely comprised of New York actors; faces and film legacies that nobody would ever associate with a western. Robert DeNiro, Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, and 78% of the Sopranoscast signed on, making it one of the largest ensemble casts since Pulp Fiction. The buzz around Miramax’s film was deafening.
Despite generally positive reviews, CopLand was only a mild success at the box office. Stallone would eventually contribute the rapid decline of his career—which occurred shortly thereafter—to the film, stating that both producers and audiences were confused about his choice to take on a role such as this. Did it mean that he was going to be focused on character-driven pieces from here on out, possible due to his age? Was the movie serving as a transition from the action roles he had been long associated? This, coupled with the high expectations the film had prior to its release, served to take Stallone further away from the spotlight, the exact opposite of what the actor had hoped. The action legend starred in 2 more costly flops, Driven and a remake of Get Carter, and was then relegated to DTV purgatory for roughly a decade until he dusted off his two most iconic characters for one last go round, proving himself bankable once again.
With 15 years of time and perspective in the rearview, CopLand is ripe for reassessment. While it might not have been the burgeoning classic the hype surrounding it proclaimed it to be, it still remains a solid title, refusing to compromise its dark, compelling, morality tale, instead favoring character development rather than pyrotechnics and gun play. If nothing else, Mangold and Stallone helped to craft a fresh spin on the cop genre; one that pays homage to films produced in Hollywood’s golden years—think High Noon made for a modern audience.