There's nothing entirely good or clean or virtuous or nice-looking in Copland. Stallone plays a smalltown sheriff, his stomach bulging over his gun-belt. Cops abandon their partners in their hour of need. De Niro playsan Internal Affairs officer, policing the police from an untidy office where even the ceiling tiles are stained and drooping. Neighbours sleep with their best friends' wives. Everyone's too fat or too thin, everyone's ugly in their ill-fitting clothing and bad haircuts, every family has a secret. There's much that needs resolving before the film is through.
Copland's what GoodFellas would have been like had the wise guys been New York policemen. It's a dizzying tangle of split loyalties, where friendships and family ties only take you so far. But rather than being viewed through the eyes of an insider, it's all seen through Freddy Heflin, the sheriff of Garrison, New Jersey. He's a kind, generous man at heart, but he's also a puppet plod, looked down on, ignored and sneered at by the city cops, who've fled the crimes of the big city to set up homes across the George Washington Bridge. He's got nothing to do all day, not because he's brilliant at upholding the law, but because criminals are scared of a town where police live on every street. So he spends his time visiting the girl whose life he saved, sorting out minor domestics and hanging out at the local cop bar, soaking up the stories and camaraderie of the men and women he can never join.
What jolts Heflin out of this middle-aged, waistline-bulging ennui is a fatal shooting on the bridge itself - the border between the bright lights, big city jurisdiction of the NYPD and his sleepy suburb. A white cop shoots and kills two unarmed black suspects, his fellow officers attempt a botched cover-up, and before you can say "Rodney King", there's a media scandal in the offing that brings unwanted attention to the tightly knit police community of Garrison.
It arrives in the form of Internal Affairs man Moe Tilden - Robert De Niro in a nylon shirt. The role's little more than a fat cameo, but once again proves that no-one swears or eats sandwiches as well as De Niro. Hated by the police he's investigating, particularly Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel), there are some impressively underplayed scenes where the veneer of courtesy barely conceals the contempt the two sides harbour.
Although the story plays across a wide range of locations, from Tilden's offices to New York rooftops, it locks Heflin into the painfully small scope of his life. We see the cops at work in the city and at home in their big houses, but Heflin's existence is defined by a weary triangle between his joyless house, the local bar and the river bank. His acceptance of his going-nowhere position and doey-eyed tolerance of the constant patronising barracking from the "real" police is genuinely frustrating to watch. How can he take it? This guy used to be Rocky and Rambo, and now people slam doors in his face. He opens his home to a cop who treats him like a chump. He stops speeding plods who openly sneer at him. You know he'll never lose 40lbs and get the girl but, like High Noon, an air of impending showdown pervades the film.
Copland is this year's Lone Star, using a similar mix of a linear good cop/bad cop narrative, with flashbacks and smaller, more intimate stories. The result must surely please everyone but the most brain-dead action blockbluster fan. It's got drama and action, poignant scenes, intense confrontations and an undisputed career best performance from Stallone. Yes, he really can act. Quite why we've never seen anything from writer/director James Mangold before is a mystery on par with why Stallone's spent the last 20 years playing one-dimensional meatheads. He did write Disney's Oliver&Company though. The director, not Stallone.