Stream On: When stars play against type—‘Cop Land’ and ‘Insomnia’

By on July 15, 2021

Freddy Heflin (right) is an overweight and half-deaf sheriff of a quiet New Jersey community where a group of corrupt NYC police live. Moe Tilden is investigating them. (IMDb.com)

For some actors being typecast is their worst nightmare: George Reeves might have killed himself (or not?) because he couldn’t break free from his TV role as Superman. Others, such as John Wayne, found in it a way to reap huge rewards. Musclebound action star Sylvester Stallone, from whom acting was not expected, took the plunge out of his comfort zone, gaining 40 pounds for a fine dramatic performance, and comedian Robin Williams found a new direction for his career of clowning on TV and movies, by taking two notoriously dark roles on film.


[IMDb.com] [trailer]
[Amazon.com; Prime Video; stream, rent or buy online] 1997 [R]

Action star Sylvester Stallone bombed by trying to expand his range to comedy with Oscar and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot! and so felt especially keen to regain his box-office crown by taking a dramatic part in Cop Land. He had gotten married and it’s thought that, as some will, he gained weight as a result. It seems that his 40-pound weight gain interrupted the filming (Variety), so it’s hard to say if he gained the weight for the movie or whether the chicken came before the ham and eggs.

That said, his acting (leading one of the best ensemble casts outside of a Martin Scorcese movie) is excellent. He plays an overweight New Jersey sheriff, Freddy Heflin, whose best days are behind him. He presides over a small town just over the river from Manhattan, where he tolerates the intimidating presence of group of corrupt NYPD cops who have made it their home.

After cocky rookie cop Murray Babitch (Michael Rapaport, Justified) mistakenly kills two civilians one night on a deserted George Washington Bridge, his cop friends and relatives in the town assist him in faking his own death and hiding him.

Sheriff Heflin, overhearing scuttlebut in the town, believes that the rookie is alive and in hiding in his town and makes his way into Manhattan to tell Moe Tilden (Robert De Niro, Bang the Drum Slowly, et al.), a dogged Internal Affairs officer who’s been taken off the investigation due to the “Blue Wall.” Heflin steals his case file, and studying it at home, realizes how corrupt his neighborhood residents are. Meanwhile the officers worry that the discovery of Babitch will open them all up to discovery of their myriad crimes, and resolve to kill him.

75% at Rotten Tomatoes, and a 64% Metascore rating. Cop Land is much better than that.


[IMDb.com] [trailer]
[Amazon.com; Prime Video; stream, rent or buy online] 2002 [R]

L.A. Detective Will Dormer, under a cloud back home and plagued by the midnight sun in Alaska, is seconded there to help hunt for a notorious killer who contacts Dormer on a ferry—and tries to extort him. (IMDb.com)

Also in 1997, Erik Skjoldbjærg wrote and directed a Nowregian thriller, Insomnia, about a flawed but expert detective working a complicated case above the Arctic Circle, that was remade in 2002 in the states. Steven Soderbergh (the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy) recruited Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk), who had just made his bones with the unprecedented thriller Memento (stream free with ads), to direct it. Nolan cast it with Al Pacino, Hilary Swank (Millon Dollar Baby), Maura Tierney (NewsRadio, The Affair)—and one of America’s favorite comedians, Robin Williams, as an incipient serial killer. Williams, a standup comic whose success on the TV sitcom Mork and Mindy and on film had put him at the top of the box office, playing, at first Popeye (1980), and then a long string of comic and dramatic roles. But even in the dramas, he always played a sympathetic character, which contributed to his beloved public persona.

That changed in 2002, with Insomnia. His affect, as a writer of detective stories who had brutally beat a teenager to death in a rage and was the object of the investigation, was by turns furtive and cocky; he was a man now entranced by murder. The lead detective had noticed that the unknown murderer had calmly cleaned the body and trimmed the girl’s fingernails. “This guy crossed the line and didn’t even blink. You don’t come back from that.”

“In the small fishing town of Nightmute, Alaska, 17-year-old Kay Connell is found murdered. Los Angeles Police Department detectives Will Dormer and Hap Eckhart are sent to assist the local police with their investigation, at the request of police chief Nyback, an old colleague of Dormer’s. Ellie Burr (Swank), a young local detective who is also a fan of Dormer’s investigative work, picks them up when they arrive. Back in Los Angeles, Internal Affairs is investigating one of Dormer’s past cases. Flying to Alaska, Eckhart reveals that he is going to testify against Dormer in exchange for immunity.” (Wikipedia)

When Dormer mistakenly shoots and kills Eckhart during a foggy chase of the suspect, he attempts to frame the still-at-large unknown subject. Ellie Burr is put in charge of that investigation while Dormer works on the original case. But in Nightmute it is the season of “the midnight sun”; it won’t get dark for months, and Dormer is plagued by insomnia and waking hallucinations. When he is contacted by Walter Finch (Williams), the unsub, Dormer is told that Finch saw him kill his partner, and he wants to make a private deal—that Dormer will steer the investigation away from Finch in return for Finch’s silence. Dormer continues in his plans to frame Finch.

Christopher Nolan called Williams’ performance “flawless,” and the director of the original film, Erik Skjoldbjærg, said he “felt lucky that it’s such a well-crafted, smart film and that it had a really good director handling it, because as a remake I think it did really well.”

92% score on Rotten Tomatoes. Sounds about right.

Next time, did Lost lose you? Check out The 4400 and Manifest.

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