In James Mangold's Cop Land (Miramax), Sylvester Stallone tries to fill in the shadow of his former self. Stallone put on 40 pounds to play Freddy Heflin, a sweet, droopy, slow-witted naif who's the sheriff of Garrison, N.J., despite the fact that Freddy commands all the authority of a traffic cop. Stallone's cheeks are ruddy and lopsided, and his hair is a greasy, unkempt mop; his thick-waisted middle is a shock to behold. Yet what's harder to adjust to than the flesh he's added is what he's lost: the implacable action-hunk attitude the burning eyes and steel-set jaw he has worn like a demigod's armor ever since the mid-'80s. Stripped of his armor, can the celebrity warrior still act that is, can he radiate emotions on a human scale?
Stallone gives a modest, likable performance in Cop Land. Playing a character meant to evoke memories of the hapless, primitive-yet-tender Rocky Balboa, he seems even more of an innocent simpleton than Rocky was (the Italian Stallion, you'll recall, worked as a collections agent for a loan shark). He's like a crustacean who's escaped his shell and now stands melting in the sun. Stallone does a solid, occasionally winning job of going through the motions of shedding his stardom, but the wattage of his personality is turned way down at times, it's turned down to neutral. And that pretty much describes Cop Land, too. Dense, meandering, ambitious yet jarringly pulpy, this tale of big-city corruption in small-town America has competence without mood or power a design but not a vision.
When he was a teenager, Freddy dived into a lake to rescue a girl who'd plunged off a bridge. In saving her, he lost his hearing in one ear, and with it his chance of becoming a true, hardcore street cop. Now, as sheriff, he roams the town performing good deeds, friendly yet defeated, a guy with a uniform but without the respect that goes with it. For Garrison is a town colonized by real cops. A tough, close-knit group of New York City officers have carved out a suburban enclave for themselves and their families there, safely across the river from the jungle. No wonder Freddy is a joke. What's he protecting them from? (Only someone with a death wish would be a crook in Garrison.) It all sounds very upright and American the Wild East tamed by its own citizen-lawmen except that this police-family paradise is built on a false bottom. Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel), a veteran officer, spearheaded the transformation of Garrison into ''Cop Land'' by making a pact with the mob. The houses were bought with dirty money, and now the cops share a cult of corruption.
Mangold's only other film, the indie oddity Heavy (1996), was about a fat, monosyllabic pizza chef, and Cop Land, too, is the story of a man who stares at life. It's easy to see why Mangold identifies with these recessive, squishy-hearted losers: There's something naggingly passive about his own filmmaking style, with its functional camera setups, its blandly lit, bare-bones atmosphere. Cop Land is ungainly to look at, and so, in its way, is its dense, ''sprawling'' conspiracy plot, a series of ill-fitting puzzle pieces we're forced to jam together in our heads. Murray (Michael Rapaport), Ray's young cop nephew, unintentionally kills two black teenagers who sideswipe him during a joyride, and fear of a racial incident leads Ray to fake Murray's suicide off the George Washington Bridge. (It takes a leap of faith just to go with that premise.) But Ray's old nemesis, a hardheaded Internal Affairs investigator named Moe Tilden (Robert De Niro), smells a cover-up. When the Garrison cops try to make good on their ruse by killing Murray off, the plan backfires and Freddy learns that Murray is still alive. Can the straw-man sheriff possibly restore justice?
Mangold certainly knew what he was doing when he cast Keitel and De Niro. As Ray, Keitel plays expertly in his wired-into-hostility mode, and De Niro, terse and funny, makes Moe an arresting contradiction a firecracker bureaucrat gnarled by cynicism. You're grateful for the way these two jack up the energy of their scenes. The other performers are trapped in roles that are like boxes built from cliches. When Annabella Sciorra, as the now-married woman Stallone saved from drowning, cradles his big, shaggy head, we know that it's meant to tug our heartstrings and therefore it doesn't. Ray Liotta, as a tormented good-bad officer, does lots of showy huffing and puffing before we have any idea of why his loyalties are torn. As for Stallone, he comes fully alive only in the powerfully staged climax, when he finally gets to pick up a gun. It's a fitting showpiece for a performer who, despite his best efforts, never looks truly comfortable out of the action. B-