Did writer/director James Mangold survive the leap from a critically praised, art-house debut to a star-driven genre movie? Did Sylvester Stallone execute a career turnaround of Travoltaesque proportions, or is he fated to remain on the books as the pre-millennium Victor Mature?

Answering the above in two words, Copland works. Those who assume that the contemplatively paced, narratively sparse Heavy defines Mangold's filmmaking style will be surprised by Copland's complex plot, dramatic build, explosive dialogue and action-filled denouement. And the way in which Mangold's writing and direction redistribute the weight of Stallone's screen persona is bound to impress.

The title refers to the suburb of Garrison, New Jersey, a fictional bastion of New York City police officers and their families over which the cops, all attached to the same Manhattan precinct, have free reign. The nominal post of sheriff is filled by Freddy Heflin (Stallone), a shambling, slow-talking zhlub of questionable intellect whose primary function is to look the other way. Unable to join the NYPD because of a hearing impairment, Freddy likes being around Donlan (Harvey Keitel), the cop who runs the town, and his confederates Figgis (Ray Liotta), Rucker (Robert Patrick) and Crasky (John Spencer).

An incident involving Donlan's nephew, 'Superboy' Babitch (Michael Rapaport), brings Internal Affairs honcho Moe Tilden (Robert De Niro) across the river in an attempt to enlist Freddy's aid. Tilden has been investigating Garrison for some time, convinced that it's an enclave of thieves and murderers in blue who operate at the behest of the mob.

It takes an attempted murder and a case of arson for Freddy to finally smell the coffee, but by then Tilden has abandoned the case for insufficient evidence and lack of cooperation. Disgusted with having spent ten years as a stooge and determined to redeem himself, Freddy knows what needs to be done and sets about doing it. Needless to say, he turns out to be smarter than he looks.

While Stallone's performance doesn't qualify as a career-redefining revelation, it's effective enough to demonstrate that, given the right script and director, he's capable of venturing well beyond his standard repertoire. As Freddy, Stallone radiates an appealing gentleness, gives the best line readings of his career, and appears energized by working with a top-flight ensemble of actors.

Keitel exudes palpable menace as Donlan, De Niro brings lots of color to the role of the I.A. investigator, and Robert Patrick scores as one of a townful of slimy cops. The smallish women's roles are capably performed by Annabella Sciorra as the dubious object of Freddy's affections, Janeane Garofalo as Garrison's newest deputy, and Cathy Moriarty as Donlan's hard-nosed spouse. It's no accident that Copland's most voluable performance comes from Liotta, since Figgis is both the most surprising and the best-written role in the film.

With a narrative structure that piles incident upon incident, a large cast that includes plenty of familiar names, and an arresting visual look, there's every reason that Copland should perform well. Not only is it entertaining, it's one of the few major films of recent vintage that runs under two hours.

--Bob Satuloff