The crime/cop genre has always been a staple of Hollywood output and one of the most popular amongst the fans. From Edward G. Robinson's turn as 'Little Ceasar' to Al Pacino's crusading cop Serpico. From Cagney's "Top of The World Ma" speech in White Heat to Gene Hackman's gruff detective in The French Connection, tales of criminals and the cops that chase them have drawn box office numbers and critical plaudits.
The 80's were awash with such movies, at one end you had Once Upon A Time In America and at the other Robocop, taking the genre to a new place entirely. Every actor wanted to play cops or the bad guy, with Charles Bronson, Burt Reynolds being the most prolific. Pacino & De Niro remained the undisputed kings , appearing in such wide ranging movies as Sea of Love, Cruising & The Untouchables respectively. At the more popcorn end of the scale, Mel Gibson and Danny Glover were cleaning up as the stars of the Lethal Weapon franchise.
End Of An Era
Then, in the early to mid 1990's it just seemed to stop and the crime drama was no longer in fashion.
Goodfellas captivated everyone, but was devoured at the Oscars by Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, despite it being Scorcese's best movie to that point.
The long awaited Godfather III failed miserably with critics and audiences alike and as with Westerns and War movies previously, studios stopped financing epic crime tales.
Add vanity bombs like Bruce Willis' Hudson Hawk to the equation and crime capers were off the table. Only Murtagh & Riggs were still given their third movie, and it was a full 5 years before they got another after that.
You Play With Matches...
It fell to auteurs like Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher and Michael Mann to keep the genre going, but the cops were often relegated to bit parts in favor of the criminals.
Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and True Romance were smaller in scale and more centred around low level hoodlums and mid-level bosses. The only cops seen in 'Dogs' meet grisly ends while in Pulp Fiction, not one cop is seen (Zed doesn't count, he's clearly a security guard) on-screen.
Se7en was very much about the cops, but its setting was as nameless as the serial killer they sought, reducing the sense they were cleaning up the city, merely trying not to drown in it.
Heat finally delivered the long awaited collision of giants with De Niro v Pacino; For all it's critical acclaim and influence on real heists, the film left many movie-goers cold with it's long run-time and flat ending.
By 1997, there had been enough confidence rebuilt, The Usual Suspects unexpected success convinced that it was give the crime epic another go, but this time with a left-field choice of star alongside the proven genre stars.
If I Can Change...Everybody Can Change
Sylvester Stallone's career had nose-dived, partially due to the horrendous Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot, which was his first foray into playing a cop since Cobra & Nighthawks a decade earlier and Oscar, a send-up of the mob tales.
Cliffhanger had shown what Sly was good at, action and it's fresh take on the genre put him back on the radar. An attempt to rehash it the following year with Daylight failed however and he was almost back to square one.
Sly had as much to do with the genre being 'whacked' as anyone so it was to very raised eyebrows that he was announced as the star of what at the time was the great hope for crime epics, James Mangold's CopLand.
Final warning for spoilers.
Welcome to Garrison N.J.
CopLand begins with a voice-over setting the scene explaining how in the 70's, some NYPD cops had found a way to circumvent the rule that made them live in the city. They formed a community just over the bridge in Jersey called Garrison. Twenty years later the place is 'run' by Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel) who regularly holds court in the local cops only bar or at his home.
Meanwhile,over the Bridge a young cop known as "Superboy" drunkenly drives home after a Scorcese-style long tracking shot, setting the tone for the movie.
He knows he is drunk but that no one would do anything if he was pulled over. Some teenage hoods sideswipe him and pull out what he thinks is a gun.
The situation quickly leads to all of their deaths and it becomes apparent that this is Ray's nephew. After an attempt to plant evidence is botched, Superboy leaps to his death from the bridge. Some even within the precinct know this stinks, there is outcry from families, controversy and eulogizing of the dead cop. Clearly influenced by Rodney King, it's quite scary how, even in the news as I write, the early part of this film is still happening today.
A Town Of Cops
In the opening minutes, the players are revealed, notably Freddy Heflin (Stallone) who is the sheriff in a town of lawmen.
Freddy always wanted to be a cop, but lost hearing in one ear saving the girl he loves from drowning. He is well liked but meek, a friend to all except her now husband and has the respect of the cops to an extent. He'll never be one of them however and they never let him forget it.
We also meet Figgis (Ray Liotta), Freddy's best friend and a burnout/addict with a secret. After a routine speed stop with his eager new deputy (Jeanne Garafolo) we see the dynamic between Ray and Freddie, he's clearly in his position as he is benign and not a threat. However we and Freddy see that Superboy is very much alive. He stays quiet.
De Niro is the LA cop desperate to end the corruption that he knows is centred around Garrison and the stage is set for betrayals, intrigue and for Freddy to finally be the cop he always wanted to be, despite what it may cost.
Is It Any Good?
CopLand has a Triple A headline cast without doubt, but it's strength, like Goodfellas before it is the quality below.
The movie is filled with top character actors including Michael Rappaport as the naive and scared Superboy, Annabella Sciorria as Freddy's old/new love and notably Robert Patrick, again wearing a police uniform and arguably more menacing than a T-1000 as Donlan's second in command.
What works is that these are not captains and chiefs, although higher-ups are clearly involved in the corruption. Donlan and his guys are all street cops in black & whites, so they are everywhere - a real network. One scene where Freddy crosses the bridge shows this to great effect.
Of the main cast, this is very much Ray Liotta's movie and he provides much of the movie's tension. Is he a team player or only out for himself?
His performance is very much a continuation of the last third of Goodfellas. Figgis is addled, a loose cannon and a danger to those around him - whichever side they might be on. The movie works because of this. He's the one guy the crooked cops can't control, or 'whack' cos he's too close to it all. Others can be eliminated with ease but Figgis' death could bring the whole card house down. Freddy has major doubts about his friend and the things he has done, but he is still a friend, as they all are. Sly does well in this film cos he has Liotta to work with, of all the townsfolk you get the sense Figgis is the one guy who is a true friend, even early in the film.
What doesn't work is that for all it's intention and good story telling, the outcome is NEVER in doubt. There are none of the tricks of Goodfellas that kept you guessing and threw you for a loop, like Henry's voice-overs, breaking the 4th wall or the electric soundtrack. You know exactly how this is gonna end from the first reel and the foreshadowing is not subtle.
As a morality tale, CopLand works. It shows Stallone as the quality actor he is when given an ensemble that fit his strengths and affords Harvey Keitel perhaps his best villainous role . He really believes he is doing good both on the streets & for the families of the cops, at whatever cost.
Copland didn't save the crime epic, but it certainly showed such movies could still be done with enough style and quality to convince that something more long-form like The Sopranos could work.
Today, TV is the home of the crime epic rather than the movies; CopLand has it's place in that world. It's the kind of story that would stand a multi-series remake for sure.
What's your favourite crime epic? Let me know below!