H, THE TYRANNY of being serious about your art: It's a shame when an actor like Sylvester Stallone, who's always at his most appealing when he just hunkers down and lets himself be a big galoot, feels he has to make a bid for respectability. And that's the only way to read Stallone's leaden performance in James Mangold's "Cop Land" -- as his chance to play ball with the big boys, heavy hitters like Robert DeNiro and Harvey Keitel. It's doubly sad that "Cop Land," with its wax-dummy character studies and sledgehammer-subtle symbolism, doesn't do any of its stars any favors. Keitel gives his usual crusty bad-guy performance -- he's got it down so well, he could just patch it in from any pay phone in the country. And DeNiro is so perky and twitchy that, while sometimes amusing, he's usually just annoying, like a pesky fly.
But it's Stallone who tries the hardest and who suffers the most. You couldn't blame anyone for getting tired of being perennially beefy, dumb and sexy, but then, Stallone does beefy, dumb and sexy so well. If most of Stallone's roles are essentially interchangeable -- who can distinguish between his characters in movies like "Assassins" and "The Specialist"? -- at least he's got a certain kind of testosterone-laced physical charm. Those reverse-Cupid's-bow lips, those eyes slung low at the corners like tipsy fishing boats -- his face has a drowsy, roughed-up beauty, like a Roman god with a nasty hangover.
In "Cop Land," though, Stallone is merely a misfit -- he always looks a little dazed, as if he's stumbled into the wrong movie by mistake. He should be kicking himself for not wandering into a better one. With its snoozy, predictable script (written by Mangold), "Cop Land" plods along like a moose wounded by an inept hunter. Stallone plays Freddy Heflin, the lumbering, golden-hearted sheriff of Garrison, N.J., a town populated mostly by New York City cops and their families. The cops, led by ruthless father figure Ray Donlan (Keitel), have built up the town as a modest-but-comfortable haven from the stress and danger of their big-city jobs. And it turns out -- surprise! -- they've used mob money to do it.
The lid threatens to blow off their little dream world after one of their own, Murray "Superboy" Babitch (Michael Rapaport, in stock Michael Rapaport performance number 368-A -- you'll find it filed under "Tiresome Whiny Boy"), fakes his own death, with help from Ray and some of the other cops, after committing a reckless act that could cost him his job. Moe Tilden (DeNiro), an investigator in the police department's Internal Affairs Bureau, knows Murray isn't dead, and hauls himself out to Garrison to appeal to Freddy to help him uncover the scam. But loyal, dependable Freddy stands by his friends: You see, he'd always dreamed of being a New York City cop himself -- we know this because of the way he keeps gazing at the George Washington Bridge, a soft-focus Candyland of colored lights connecting Joisey to the Land of Milk and Honey. Sadly, Freddy's dream was shattered years ago when, as a teenager, he lost his hearing in one ear after rescuing a young woman from a submerged car. To add insult to injury, he's been in love with her ever since, even though she went off and married another guy (and even though she's played by the somnambulant Annabella Sciorra).
"Cop Land" just gets dumber as it unfolds. The dialogue is so self-consciously hard-boiled it's overcooked. ("They made themselves a place where the shit couldn't touch them," DeNiro says in a voice-over as the movie opens. "That's what they thought, anyway.") And even after his first feature, the ponderous "Heavy," Mangold clearly hasn't gotten over his soft spot for losers with a heart of gold. We get endless reaction shots as Stallone slowly, gradually and incrementally discovers that his cop friends are irredeemably crooked and evil. We're supposed to be seeing Stallone's inner torture -- his friendly, trusting innocence revoked forever as he realizes he can no longer protect his buddies -- but what we're really seeing is Stallone responding to the obvious, rampant nastiness that surrounds him with about as much perceptiveness as a drugged bear.
It doesn't help that Stallone pulled a "Raging Bull" for the role: To lend greater authenticity to his performance, he physically paunched up, as if acting and gaining weight were the same thing. And sure enough, you look at him and you really believe he ate all those doughnuts. Stallone is a real actor at last, and all it took was a little extra adipose tissue. That's encouraging news for those of us who like to eat Hdagen-Dazs straight out of the carton.