James Mangold’s 1997 crime film Cop Land occupies a strange no man’s land of pop culture. Despite having one of the most loaded casts of any ’90s film, complete with Sylvester Stallone, Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, and Robert De Niro all fighting for the film’s top spot, Cop Land rarely gets the same attention that more prestigious and acclaimed crime films receive.
Contemporary critical reaction was positive, but most reviews were relatively lukewarm. In a decade that kicked off with Goodfellas and cycled through the likes of Bad Lieutenant and Heat, Cop Land got lost in the shuffle of crooked cop films. It’s an underrated genre flick, rich with more subtlety and character development than it gets credit for. That’s best illustrated by its use of two distinct needle drops from Bruce Springsteen.
At the heart of Cop Land is Stallone’s Freddy Heflin, a failed NYPD cop who acts as the sheriff of a New Jersey town home to a large portion of New York’s finest. Stallone plays Heflin as a put upon loser who fails to have enough guts to stand up to the rules bent by some of his populace, resigned to his place in life while remaining wistful about his failed aspirations and past glories. In other words: he’s basically a character in a Bruce Springsteen song.
Perhaps it’s a little on the nose, but Springsteen gets two key needle drops in Cop Land. The first comes when Heflin is stuck reminiscing over a love that he lost years ago, punctuated by Springsteen’s ‘Drive All Night’ quietly playing on his turntable. The line “When I lost you baby / Sometimes I think I lost my guts too” perfectly encapsulates who Stallone’s character is in just one line, and the desperation that Springsteen channels can be felt in ever weathered glance and sheepish look that Stallone pulls throughout the film.
When Heflin finally gets the object of his affection (and early-life heroism), Annabella Sciorra’s Liz Randone, their non-union is soundtracked to ‘Stolen Car’, another song from The River concerning desperation and separation. Their bittersweet inability to truly embrace their connection gets its own on-the-nose Springsteen line to punctuate its message: “In the end it was something more I guess / That tore us apart and made us weep.”
Neither of the songs exactly line up with the film’s narrative: ‘Drive All Night’ is about desperately hanging on to what you have instead of longing for what you can’t, while ‘Stolen Car’ follows a couple that saw their perfect marriage deteriorate after years, not a relationship that missed its window of opportunity. But the exact details, and the eye-rolling obviousness of the song choices, never damper the emotional impact when it hits just right, Music choices can make or break a film’s narrative flow, and Mangold chose the perfect interpreter of Stallone’s Jersey burnout in Bruce Springsteen.
Check out the Cop Land scene featuring ‘Stolen Car’ down below.