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Review: Stallone flab-ulous in 'Cop Land'

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From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- I know there be might people reading this who are too young to believe it, but there was a time when Sylvester Stallone was supposed to become one of our best actors. I can remember a newspaper ad that started appearing shortly after "Rocky" unexpectedly set the world on fire back in 1977. It actually heralded the arrival of a new acting demigod -- "BRANDO! DE NIRO! PACINO! STALLONE!" Looking back, it's like something off of an IQ test. One of these things is definitely not like the others.

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"Cop Land," Stallone's much-hyped return to "real" acting (in which he plays a hearing-impaired, overweight sheriff in a corrupt New Jersey town), comes as a welcome relief to a nostalgic "Rocky" fan like myself. Stallone is quite good indeed, in a fairly simple performance that he could've given with a lot less off-camera chest-beating 20 years ago. Back then it was still possible for him to give a damn without holding a press conference at Planet Hollywood.

Regardless, the guy's sticking his neck out simply by trying again, which is a lot more than you can say for ... well, for practically everybody who used to be good 20 years ago and stinks now. He manages to pull it all off with an admirable, wounded doofus panache.

Too bad, then, that the film itself is so disordered, with an overall pace that makes a manatee rolling onto its back look like the car chase in "Bullitt." The story, all jumbled up by writer/director James Mangold, is about the fictional town of Garrison, New Jersey, where half the population is made up of crooked New York City cops who've moved out to the suburbs to do assorted illegal things and yell a lot. They also like to punch, shoot, and kick each other. One guy in a bar even gets a dart stuck up his nose. Yow!

The head of all this corruption is Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel). It's never really made clear exactly what these jerks are accomplishing by banding together out there in the sticks, though. They're just generically mean and racist, as if ill will is something that really rakes in the extra bucks if you just apply yourself, like selling Amway. Aside from Annabella Sciorra as Stallone's ex-girlfriend and Janeane Garofalo as a brand new deputy, the movie is hyper-juiced on testosterone. (Garofalo, by the way, is her usual inspired self for the 72 seconds that they allow her to be on-screen. The fools.)

Let's see, we have Keitel and Stallone, Robert DeNiro, Ray Liotta, Michael Rappaport, Robert Patrick and about 50 lower-Manhattan character actors who aren't busy right now because Marty Scorsese is making a movie about the Dalai Lama, whoever he is. The story begins by focusing on a police investigation of a massive cover-up (Rappaport's death has, quite unbelievably, been faked by Keitel), but about 20 minutes in, things start to seem more like a character study, with Stallone's Freddy being the character. This is the best stuff in the film, but Mangold eventually abandons it and starts jerking the story all over the place. After a while you just have to sit back and appreciate that most of the actors are doing very good work.

DeNiro has a couple of amusing moments as the police investigator. He's doing his disgruntled tough-guy shtick here, in which he makes the character sound more intimidating by refusing to use contractions when he angrily spits out the dialogue (I'm on to you, Bob. Or should I say, "I-am-on-to-you-Bobby.") Liotta is also sharp, giving his best performance since "Goodfellas." The problem is that his character is inconsistently written, going through more changes during the course of the film than David Bowie did right after he hung up Ziggy Stardust.

As I've already said, though, the real story is Stallone. It's truly odd that this man, who can so fully embody the soul of a loser, turned into one of the biggest stars in movie history by doing stuff like knocking an attack helicopter out of the air with a rock (see "First Blood." On second thought, don't). In "Cop Land" he carries himself around as if he's carrying himself around. He looks like he's about to fall over from the weight of being alive. On occasion he may try a little too hard to look like a simpleton, but I was with him the whole way. Then he gets sucked under just like everyone else by the badly plotted script.

It's pretty funny, actually, that Stallone gained 40 pounds to play this role, and what the movie needs more than anything else is to eat a salad and do some sit-ups.

"Cop Land" contains profanity, violence, and one burned-up woman who's not looking very good. In a real nod towards good taste, Harvey Keitel manages to keep his pants on this time. Rated R. 105 minutes.

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