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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sly Returns to Form in 'Cop Land'

It was one of Hollywood's most closely guarded secrets for almost 20 years, but now it has been revealed to the world by the 1997 crime drama, "Cop Land," now playing at Rossia Movie Theater. For this is a film that dares to uncover the shocking truth, hidden since the days when Jimmy Carter was the most powerful man in the world: Sylvester Stallone can act.

Yes, boys and girls, there once was a time when the rubberized action toy and self-perpetuating caricature you've known for all these years could actually convey honest human emotion on the screen. True, his scope for such activity was exceedingly narrow: He wasn't going to light up any leotards as Hamlet; he could never have carried off Indiana Jones; he would have even been at sea with something dark and simple like Dirty Harry. But what he could play, as well as or better than anyone around, was the punchy palooka: good-hearted, a little slow on the uptake, a lovable loser who every now and then might catch a break and beat the odds.

This was, of course, his role in the original "Rocky" (in which, you might recall, his character lost the big fight but gained self-respect). In olden times, such a good, limited but serviceable player would have gone on to a career of solid achievement as a great character actor. You would have seen him backing up Bogart or Burt Lancaster, occasionally taking the lead in some second-line but satisfying crime noir, with Sterling Hayden or Ward Bond. Instead, he hit the top in Hollywood just as the place was starting to explode with unheard-of profits, riding the tidal wave of Spielberg's and Lucas' unprecedented success. Box-office champs suddenly commanded vast new powers. They were set up as feudal lords and could do what they wanted. Stallone wanted, understandably enough, to be a buff, tough super-hero: Rocky as world-beating champ; Rambo, the god of War; Judge Dredd, the killing machine. He made millions (and more power to him), but he also short-circuited the beginnings of a brilliant career.

Now, with "Cop Land," he has come full circle, and in a moving performance shows that all the years of Planet Hollywood-People Magazine crud have not effaced his talents. Here he is a palooka once more, the lifelong loser Sheriff Freddy Heflin, an aging, paunchy, small-town schlemiel, adrift in mediocrity and lost in his now impossible dreams of being a real cop in glittering New York City, just across the river. That his town is filled with New York cops, who settled there to get away from the city's grit -- and to work some corrupt side-deals of their own -- only makes his situation worse.

Stallone's supporting cast is strong, packed with players from Scorcese masterpieces: Harvey Keitel (in top form here as a mob-tainted cop), Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta and Cathy Moriarty, augmented by nice performances from Janeane Garofalo and Annabella Sciorra. That Stallone stands out in such a lineup only makes his work even more impressive. The plot is dense, textured like a novel, centering on Freddy's moral dilemma when he is finally confronted with his heroes' corruption.

Unfortunately, the cast may be a little too strong, the plot a bit too rich. Some characters, like De Niro's internal affairs investigator and Moriarty's woman scorned, are largely wasted; there's just not enough space for their characters to develop. Writer-director James Mangold seems overwhelmed at times with the wealth of talent and plot potential he has on hand; as most critics of the film noted, he has let a great movie slip out of his grasp.

So we must settle for a pretty good one, which, despite a few dead spots and murky passages, remains always interesting and is sometimes compelling. In the end, "Cop Land" belongs to Stallone -- and it's good to have him back.