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With one giant breath, Cop Land blows the cobwebs off the ultraviolent cop movie. The recent tradition of yocky gun-humor spawned, roughly, by Prizzi’s Honor, fine-tuned by Quentin Tarantino, and sedulously reproduced by his deifiers is nowhere to be seen in this rough, complicated, absorbing immorality play. The violence is ugly and sudden; it escalates with scary alacrity, like a bad fire, and it’s born of everything from misery to greed to cunning.
James Mangold’s movie opens with the same scene being enacted on either side of the Hudson River: An off-duty cop loads a drunken pal into his car asking, “You all right to drive?” Clearly, we are not in Serpico land anymore. Such everyday transgressions as driving drunkenly through town with impunity give way to grand-scale manipulation of the law: police brutality, planting weapons, fake suicide, and murder.
The cops controlling this mayhem are bad men with generally decent goals; they want peace and protection for themselves and their families, scumbags off the street, and a nice place to live. To that end, they have created “Cop Land,”Garrison, N.J.a rundown riverside town of crummy bars and tidy homes created entirely by New York City policemen and those who fear them. Mob-financed and run as a private fiefdom, Garrison has virtually no crime on its booksthe only lawbreakers are the cops themselves, free to run riot.
Sheriff Freddy Heflin (Sylvester Stallone) and his staff of two do more overlooking than they do overseeing. Freddy gave up his dream of being NYPD when he lost the hearing in one ear saving a girl from drowning; now he hangs around the cop bar with his idols, unable to participate in their macho unwinding rituals. Liz, the girl he saved (Annabella Sciorra), is unhappily married to a cop (Peter Berg) who’s spending overtime with the blowsy blond wife of Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel). Ray is king of the clean streets of Garrison, the cruelest, smuggest, most conscienceless of all the rotten cops in their neat brick homes. With its affairs and local hangouts, Garrison is like any middle-class small town, only with lots and lots more firepower.
Freddy catches Ray and his hardass entourage in a cover-up of epic proportions, but won’t butt in even under pressure from the New York Internal Affairs guys, starring Robert De Niro in a bad rug. The bad cops are his heroes, even if they sneer at his sheriff’s uniform and call his deputy (Janeane Garofalo) “Cupcake.” Stallone’s dim articulatenessso silly in a supercompetent heroworks here, where he’s playing a passive lug used to missing half the conversation. Stallone lives up to his face and rep with this roleFreddy is only pushed into action after laboriously adding two and two.
He isn’t the loner heromore like a loser hero. He listens to Glenn Gould and smokes ultralight cigarettes; at one point he complains to Ray, “I’m supposed to know what’s going on.” Freddy has a stolid sadness about him; he’s slow, but he’s also cautious, or maybe weary. When Liz tells him he can get Bruce Springsteen on CD now, he says simply, “It wouldn’t matter to me.”
The plot of Cop Land is incredibly complicated, but it never loses you. It’s powered by a propulsive story, careeningly fast and unpredictable but never ostentatious, and if violence is everywhere, action per se is not. Mild altercations lead to death and betrayal, which lead to more death and betrayalthese men exist at such a high pitch of violence that their every action only perpetuates it. A cop blows a tire, and two joyriders die; a man who stood up for his girlfriend against his coarse friends finds her dead in his burned-down house; one phone call to a powerful mobster and the IAD is off the Garrison case.
As Gary Figgis, a cokehead cop fed up with the corruption, Ray Liotta is stuck with much of the expositionhe has big shouting scenes that explain the murder of his old partner and illuminate Freddy’s hopeless situation. Figgis has dead man written all over him, from his new paunch to his uncertain walk to his glassy, pseudo-alert coke stare. But Ray only eliminates those unfortunates who may make the Garrison cops’ infractions public, even by merely existing. Better than most, he understands the value of tolerating dead weight.
Cop Land’s script (by Mangold) depends on clarity for its impact, not on irony or scatology meant to heighten the action. Some of the most powerful moments in the movie explain the action with lucidity and great sadness, and they have an old-fashioned air, as when Gary sums up a litany of cover-ups and indebtedness by shouting at Ray, “In for a penny, in for a pound.” De Niro’s character calls the bad cops “Hessians,” and reminds Freddy of how he “pined to be a cop.”
Stallone has become such a comic presence that the movie’s tone slides around some. The macho seriousness of the guys playing real cops (scary guys like Robert Patrickimagine what a scary cop he makes) thuds against Stallone’s history as a shallow good guy; it’s too easy to read his role that way, like that of a heroic dog. But Cop Land can afford some slack bits, since the rest is taut and beautifully crafted. All the way up to its bloody, hopeless climax, the story hacks out its own pathit’s a morality play too honest to take sides, an action movie too troubled to find catharsis in its outbursts.
Apparently, there’s a contingent of peopleFrench peoplewho find The Little Prince too callous and cynical. They admire the idea but aren’t sure the point has been made strongly enough. These people have gifted us with Mondo, an 80-minute exercise in high-gloss kitsch based on a story by J.M.G. Le Clézio.
Mondo opens and closes with narration; it is the city of Nice talking, telling us how Mondo the tousled gypsy boy (Ovidiu Balan) showed up one day to face a bouquet of spurious assumptions, enumerated with Gallic superciliousness: “We knew that he had come from very far away, and that he had seen many lands.” None of this is apparent in the boy’s appearance or behavior; he looks to be an unkempt 10-year-old with hair that has been lovingly sculpted in the style of a supermodel who just got out of bed, and cursed with a tendency to walk up to strangers and lay on them a terrifying watch-me-twinkle smile while asking, “Would you like to adopt me?”
They all would, from the indulgent fisherman (Maurice Maurin) who teaches Mondo to read using an excruciatingly whimsical set of etched stones (“‘I’ dances on the tip of its feet and its little head comes off”) to the mysterious British bum with a suitcase full of white doves, to the earth-and-soul Vietnamese recluse who offers Mondo a life of tea and nature-appreciation in her spectacular villa. And the magician; there’s always a magician.
In fact, there’s no one who doesn’t love Mondo and his dazzling Hollywood smilehe is one of those tiresome characters the movies love but can never justify, the stranger who flits into a community and galvanizes its every last member, only to leave just as suddenly, unwittingly plunging his former flock back into their gray and dreary lives. The symbols of no funbad old police and their cousins, the doggy-catchersare against Mondo’s teaching all of Nice how to love again.
Most of this is an excuse for Gatlif to show off a lot of fancy photography; Mondo is a good-looking movie, sometimes in spite of its painful whimsy (Mondo reverently drinks a giant drop of dew glistening at the center of a giant leaf) and sometimes because of it, as when oranges inscribed by Algerian women with Arabic laments wash up on the crystalline shore. The look is insultingly emphatic, but the ideas are worse, borrowed and bankruptlong scenes of the lonely orphan outside shop windows showing a plush bedroom, a gleaming kitchen, a bird on a rotisserie, candied fruit and great slabs of caramel. Mondo even follows happy, jostling family members around a supermarket as they load up their cart with cakes and demonstrate their togetherness.
Withal, there isn’t a shot in the whole picture that explains why seemingly sensible people find their hearts touched by this grimy, phony little creature. Citizens of Nice who feel they have perfectly fine lives ought to be indignant at the theory that their lives are worthless without a pint-size free spirit roaming the streets and cadging free bread. There may be a perfect audience for Mondo, but how often do they have mime conventions? CP