The sudden passing of actor Ray Liotta is a tragedy. It is tragic for his family, first and foremost. It is tragic for the future work that he may have done, what films he may have made. And it is a tragedy for film fans everywhere who appreciated the strange power he brought to all his roles. Though he will always be remembered for Goodfellas, the early starring part that made him forever a part of Hollywood history, his career is full of amazing films. One of the finest of Ray Liotta movies is currently available for streaming on HBO Max: 1997’s Cop Land. Upon the time of its release, James Mangold’s neo-noir was well-received and did okay at the box office, but has largely been forgotten. That should change.
Cop Land stars Ray Liotta among an enormous, ridiculously talented cast that includes Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro, and Harvey Keitel. And those are just the most prominently billed of the actors in this movie. It is a little odd to see Ray Liotta in this streaming movie along with essentially every character actor who has appeared in a crime drama in the last half-century and still have it be so little known. But even among the heavyweight talent of Cop Land, Ray Liotta stands out in the movie; the shiny-eyed intensity that made him so perfect for roles that were just slightly too unhinged for comfort is on full display. It is a high-key performance in a low-key movie, but it is also the salt that seasons the entire film.
James Mangold had only one directorial feature on his resume when he made Cop Land, the romantic drama Heavy. He had studied film at Columbia University under the great Czech filmmaker Miloš Forman, where he had developed both Heavy and Cop Land. The script must have really been something, because it convinced Ray Liotta and a huge chunk of New York City’s character actors to come on board. Watching Ray Liotta on this streaming feature now is an amazing opportunity to see some of the most talented actors of their generation, like Edie Falco, Peter Berg, Michael Rapaport, Noah Emmerich, and Cathy Moriarty. Even the small, blink-and-you-miss-it role of New York City PDA president is played by the Goodfellas and Sopranos great Frank Vincent.
The actual plot of Cop Land is pure noir. The movie begins with a view of New York City and a voiceover describing how NYC police officers had managed to find a loophole that lets them live outside the city in a neighboring small burg in New Jersey which they can rule like kings. Ray Liotta stars in this streaming feature as one of those cops and a friend of Sylvester Stallone’s sheriff character. He is a man clearly at the end of his rope. He is implied to be cocaine-addicted and falling behind in his mortgage payments, about to be pushed out of the inner circle of cops run by Harvey Keitel. Stallone plays the town sheriff as an overweight sadsack, a man who drinks too much and failed at becoming a cop himself because of partial deafness caused by saving a drowning teen in his youth. Although he’s supposedly called a “hero,” but treated as a joke by Keitel and his mean.
While Ray Liotta and Sylvester Stallone are drowning their streaming sorrows, a young cop (Michael Rapaport) being lauded for saving the lives of several Black children ends up drunkenly killing two Black men who sideswipe his car and apparently kills himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. Things just get more complicated and darker from there.
Ray Liotta is not the central star of this streaming movie. He is one character in deeply cynical noir that posits the New York City Police Department as a self-serving gang that will do anything to protect themselves. But he is the element of wildness that really makes Cop Land becomes something more than just another genre exercise. James Mangold has gone on to make many more grim, fatalistic movies like Logan and Girl, Interrupted. Ray Liotta would go on perform many more excellent, including standouts in The Many Saints of Newark and Marriage Story. This movie is one of Ray Liotta’s finest and too long underrated. RIP Ray Liotta.