Miramax Films is promoting "Cop Land" as a breakthrough movie, and in some ways it is. It's a breakthrough for writer-director James Mangold, who earned deserved respect for his small-scale drama "Heavy" a year ago and now emerges as a major talent in the mass-market melodrama field.
And it's a breakthrough for independent film in general, since it's almost unprecedented for so much top-of-the-line star power - Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta - to appear in a single picture with such a modest budget and low-key style.
Not that "Cop Land" tells a gentle story. The setting is a New Jersey town across the river from Manhattan, populated largely by New York cops who've moved to the suburbs so their kids can grow up away from big-city chaos and confusion.
Stallone plays the local sheriff, a lonely man whose career was stalled years earlier by an injury. He spends his time flagging down speeders, remembering the past - especially his one moment of glory, the heroic rescue that left him with damaged health - and envying the "real cops" who live all around him.
His illusions about them are shaken when an internal-affairs investigator comes to town, probing a scandal that may involve several of the officers he sees every day. Gradually he realizes that their loyalty and solidarity are masks for conspiracy and corruption; slowly he sees that his friendships and duties are on a collision course.
Tales about dishonest lawmen and codes of silence are familiar stuff, but Mangold makes "Cop Land" fresh by caring more about the characters - especially the sheriff, a strikingly real and sympathetic figure - than the increasingly nasty skulduggery around them.
The dialogue is crisp and realistic. Liotta does his sharpest work since "GoodFellas," and there are moments when De Niro and Keitel almost recapture the electricity of their indelible "Taxi Driver" portrayals. It's a special pleasure to see Stallone doing solid work in a solid movie for a change. Has he grown out of his action-movie phase at last?
"Cop Land" would be even stronger if it built to a more meaningful climax - its final shootout is a letdown after such an absorbing story - and if Mangold had avoided a few trite devices, like an almost-love-affair between two characters and the year's umpteenth scene in a topless-dancing joint.
Back on the positive side, some of the movie's most awful violence is suggested rather than shown, and the screenplay makes intelligent points about the good and bad aspects of suburban communities. Of particular interest is its recognition that people drenched in "family values" rhetoric sometimes use this as a deluded justification for selfish and even destructive behavior toward those outside the domestic circle.
In all, "Cop Land" is easily the year's best-acted movie, and one of the smartest, too.
* Rated R; contains hard-hitting violence, foul language, and brief nudity.