When he was barely a man, small-town Sheriff Freddy Heflin (Sylvester Stallone) didn’t hesitate when a young girl crashed her car into a nearby river. Hailed as a hero for saving her life, his bravery bore him a life-changing sacrifice: Freddy was now deaf in his right ear. His dreams of joining the NYPD, a stone’s throw from his hometown of Garrison, New Jersey, were crushed in an instant. A few decades later, Freddy is now the town’s pitiable, unsuspecting Sheriff, and the Garrison he once knew has forever changed. A band of big-city cops, sick and tired of the hell-hole that was New York in the 1970’s, have made the town their little slice of paradise. Building paradise, however, came with a cost: Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel), the band’s leader, made a deal with the mob that would give them their utopia so long as they left the drug traffickers in their precinct alone. Beyond the jurisdiction of Internal Affairs, the department responsible for investigating police corruption, Ray seems to have pulled off some blood-soaked version of the American Dream. That is, until their idolising Sheriff starts paying attention.
Copland (1997) kicks off when Murray “Superboy” Babitch (Michael Rapaport), one of Garrison’s many blue bloods and Ray’s boneheaded nephew, kills two unarmed black teenagers on his way home from the club. When Ray’s men fail to discreetly incriminate the victims, he takes matters into his own hands and fakes Superboy’s suicide. Harbouring him across the river in Garrison, the town’s dirty cops wise up to how hopeless their situation is — and the shit stewing under their peaceful streets starts to spew out. Moe Tilden (Robert De Niro), an I.A. investigator and long time enemy or Ray’s, picks up the scent and starts poking around town. Aware of his own limitations, but spurred on by the panicked disquiet he notices amongst Garrison’s goons, Moe turns to Sheriff Heflin. Belittled and emasculated by the men who live a life he can only dream of, including the man who married the girl he gave up his hearing to save, Freddy is reluctant to believe anything Moe has to say about Ray’s dodgy dealings; Donalan’s generosity, after all, is the only reason he got the job in the first place.
The airing of Garrison’s dirty laundry, and the unraveling of Ray’s once ironclad canal of loyal family men, however. forces Freddy to begin rethinking everything he believed about not only his hometown and the cops who live there, but also all the assumptions he’s held, for a long time, about himself. He slowly reconnects with Liz (Annabella Sciorria), the girl he saved, and they confess their love for one another. He then discovers that her husband, another of Garrison’s goons, is having an affair with Ray’s wife, and that Figgis (Ray Liotta), once Ray’s right hand man, is being targeted by his panicked former leader; who’s gone so far as to burn down his home and murder his wife. These developments, combined with Figgis’ guarded honesty about who he is and what he’s done, wake the sheriff up from his decade-long, boozy slumber. By the time Superboy lands on his doorstep, he has no trouble believing that Ray, the boy’s uncle, had tried to murder him.
When your entire understanding of who you are, who your friends are, and where you belong is shattered, what do you do? This is the question that drives Copland forward, and it’s gnawing presence is executed to great effect. Sheriff Freddy Heflin realises, when discovering that his town is built on the sins of the cops who’d spent years pushing him around, that’s he is not the same brave man who unflinchingly risked his life for a stranger. The wound that he sustained in that endeavour, the same wound that permanently relegated him to service as a backwater bobby, has deteriorated from a symbol of his courage into a physical reflection of his apathy and inattention toward the repugnant men that he has spent so long worshipping. The very best scene of the film involves Freddy lamenting that, if he were confronted with Liz drowning now, after years of internalising a sense of inferiority compared to the men living his dream, he would end up paralysed by indecision and cowardice.
This realisation, however, marks a turning point. After discovering that Internal Affairs have dropped the investigation under pressure from the mayor, Freddy starts embodying that same unflinching drive for good that he found, and lost, all those years ago. His tone and demeanour drop their habitual servility, and he begins to exude a sense of purpose and justice befitting that of a small town sheriff. This development, more than any other, reveals the film as a careful mix between a film-noir and a classic western, taking the best of both genres to create a picture that is just as comfortable with seedy depictions of vice and cruelty as it is with warm displays of earnest, small-town American values. This careful balancing act is masterfully upholstered by a tight script, a truly stellar cast, rich and colourful cinematography, and a confident, steady direction by James Mangold that oozes both simplicity and sophistication in the final edit. It has to be said he’s the only filmmaker, at least that I’m aware of, who could successfully set a western, neo-noir thriller in the shadow of New York City.
In the closing minutes of the film, sheriff Heflin is ambushed as he tries to get Superboy to the city; the hotbed of crime and filth that, ironically enough, still remains the only place where justice can be done. One of Ray’s men fires a gun right next to Freddy’s good ear, leaving him completely deaf and spewing blood. As was the case when he last attempted, and succeeded, to do the right thing, Freddy gives up something he desperately needs; and again like the last time, this doesn’t deter him from seeing it through. Lumbering up the hill to Ray’s home in excruciating pain, barely able to keep himself up, he sledgehammers his way through Ray’s goons with the help of a now redeemed Figgis. Deaf as a doorknob, he’s unable to hear Ray’s dying lies. Superboy is passed over to Internal Affairs and, with Figgis’ supporting testimony, Garrison is gutted of its dodgy inhabitants. Sheriff Heflin, having rediscovered his good character, recovers hearing in his better ear and returns to his duty. The audience are left to believe that perhaps some good deeds do go unpunished.