By Leah Rozen
August 25, 1997 12:00 PM

Sylvester Stallone, Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro

Cop Land, a small-scale film with a big-name cast and big ambitions, has its moments, but, in the end, this movie about corrupt cops and a heroic sheriff seems all too familiar. With good reason. Remember all those westerns where a bunch of nasty outlaws who control a town install a weak sheriff and then, one day, the sheriff decides it’s time to clean up? Well, Cop Land, written and directed by James Mangold (Heavy), is that same story transplanted to a contemporary hamlet in New Jersey just across the Hudson River from New York City. The bad guys are a group of rotten Big Apple cops (Keitel, Liotta and Peter Berg) who work in the city but live in the town, and Stallone, a hearing-impaired, nice-guy cop wannabe, is their handpicked sheriff.

This is the role that Stallone himself has been busily proclaiming may just help him make the transition from action-hero lug to sensitive and serious actor. So how is he? It’s safe to say he won’t play Hamlet anytime soon, though he is better than you might expect, given his recent rote work. But one has the feeling that Stallone, who packed on 40 pounds to play the obliging sheriff, is concentrating so hard on not messing up in his scenes with acting heavyweights De Niro (who plays an officer with NYPD’s internal affairs), Keitel and Liotta that he is almost too restrained. While neither Keitel nor De Niro breaks any new ground, Liotta, playing a scummy cop who suffers second thoughts about a life of corruption, takes home the acting honors. (R)