Who lives by the plot shall die by the plot. Copland, written and directed by James Mangold, is an old-fashioned, plot-driven, realistic thriller that almost succeeds but that falls down because of a central incoherence in the plot. The problem is this. Everything depends on the far reaching ramifications of what happens one night to a young cop, Murray Babitch, nicknamed “Superboy” (Michael Rapaport), on his way back to his home in New Jersey after a drinking party with a bunch of his fellow cops. As he is crossing the George Washington Bridge, a car sideswipes him and then, when he tries to pull it over, one of the young black men in the other car shows him what looks like a gun. He slams the brakes on and one of his tires blows out. He thinks someone is shooting at him and he returns fire, killing both of the guys in the other car.
When the police arrive on the scene they find that there is no gun in the car. What the guy had held up was a steering wheel “club.” Now it so happens that Superboy is the nephew of the wife, Rose (Cathy Moriarty), of a very influential cop, Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel). Ray and some of his boys try to plant a piece on the two dead youths, but a black evidence technician on the scene is not buying it. While the technician and one of Ray’s boys, Jack (Robert Patrick), are duking it out, Superboy apparently jumps from the bridge. In fact, Ray and some of his cronies spirit him away and plan to get him out of town in order to avoid an official inquiry. But a police internal investigations unit, headed by Lt. Moe Tilden (Robert DeNiro) is breathing down the necks of Donlan and company, and the mayor is unwilling to let the matter drop so long as Superboy’s body has not been found.
This is where the plot incoherence comes in. On the one hand, Ray and his little band of acolytes decide that they’ve got to kill Superboy, presumably in order to supply the body that the mayor requires (they mean to drown him in Ray’s jacuzzi) and on the other, Ray uses his influence in the department to stop the inquiry anyway when Superboy escapes. The question then arises: Why must Superboy die? This is not a niggling worry but central to the whole film, since it is Superboy’s escape (as he is warned by his aunt of her husband’s intentions) which ultimately leads to the unravelling of the web of deceit woven by Ray’s criminal and mob-affiliated gang within the police department.
In fact, Mangold makes the mistake of taking the conspiracy for granted in order to focus his attention on the real object of his interest, which is Sheriff Freddy Heflin (Sylvester Stallone), head of the three-member police department of Garrison, New Jersey, where all these New York cops live. For this role, Stallone gets to do an updated version of his original Rocky: a slow talking, and rather slow-thinking muscleman who proves to be a gentle giant, only in need of the love of a good woman. For Freddy is looked down on and patronized by the New Yorkers, partly because, owing to deafness in one ear, he has himself been several times rejected in his application to join the NYPD. This deafness (are you beginning to feel that you know just a little bit more than you want to know about these characters?) was caused by an act of heroism he performed years ago when he rescued a local beauty queen, Liz (Annabella Sciorra) from her car after it ran off the road into the river. Ever since then, the big galoot has been carrying a torch for Liz.
But the soap opera goes on. Liz is married to another one of Ray’s gang, Joey Randone (Peter Berg)—who beats her and is having an affair with Superboy’s Aunt Rose. This creates a certain amount of tension between Ray and Joey, and there is also bad blood between Ray and another gang member, the disgruntled Gary Figgis, or “Figgsy” (Ray Liotta), whose partner was murdered two years before on Ray’s orders when he was about to blow the whistle on the gang. You can probably imagine how this seething cauldron of hatred will boil over and give us a chance to see Stallone, once again like Rocky, staggering through the final scene wounded and covered in blood and bringing in a prize to the stares and congratulations of those who a moment before had held him in slight regard. But those of us who like plot-driven thrillers will still be asking why it was that the gang thought they had to kill Superboy?
Incidentally, there is no such place as Copland. It is still illegal for NYPD cops to live outside the five boroughs.