I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
There are a handful of controversial film opinions I have pretended to hold at one point or another for the sake of my own amusement, like “Twister is my favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman movie” or “Gigli was ahead of its time.” But here is an earnest one: the greatest line reading in the history of cinema comes at the hour-and-18-minute mark of Cop Land, James Mangold’s 1997 parable of police corruption and mafia power just west of the George Washington Bridge.
The line in question is “You blew it!” or, as it’s rendered on YouTube, “You bleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeew it!,” with 18 additional e’s and a mustachioed frowny face. It’s the climax to a tense conversation between NYPD Internal Affairs officer Moe Tilden (Robert De Niro) and Freddy Heflin, the sheriff of fictional Garrison, New Jersey (a paunchy Sylvester Stallone). Having stymied Moe’s attempt to investigate city cops living under Freddy’s jurisdiction earlier in the film, he comes to Moe’s office for a second chance to help him expose their crimes — fatefully, during lunch hour. Moe is visibly unimpressed with Freddy’s late-stage conversion. “Hands are tied now, you shut me down,” De Niro sneers, twisting his arms to illustrate. But unable to take no for an answer, Stallone presses on until De Niro rises from his chair, voice rising with it. “Listen, you deaf fuck … I offered you a chance when we could have done something. I offered you a chance to be a cop” — he pauses to inhale — “and you blew it! You blew it.”
The first “blew” stretches on for a beat longer than seems necessary or even advisable. His mouth is half-full with the sandwich he’s waving around throughout, and you can practically feel the deli meat–flecked spit hitting Stallone in the face. (My boyfriend and I have argued about the contents of the sandwich; he suspects it may be strictly cheese but Tilden strikes me as more of a ham man.) But it’s De Niro’s expression that clinches it. His eyebrows arc halfway up his forehead while his lower jaw juts out so far it threatens to unhinge completely, like a snake’s. It’s terrible, and it’s perfect.
In that way, it’s a lot like Cop Land itself. Intended by Miramax as a reinvention vehicle for Sylvester Stallone à la Travolta in Pulp Fiction, it dashed the studio’s blockbuster dreams and garnered only middling to positive reviews (except from the Washington Post’s Rita Kempley, who quipped that the movie “really might have been better off trading the director for a traffic cop.”). But where it failed as a prestige crime drama, it seems ripe for reclamation as a camp classic. Cop Land is defined by its excesses. There are too many plots — a faked death that must be made real, a vengeful mistress pettily dumping trash at the curb of her chosen philanderer, a cocaine-fueled arson insurance fraud with unintended consequences. The music cues are too on the nose; Stallone finally beds his married crush-since-adolescence to the plaintive tune of Bruce Springsteen “Stolen Car” — one of two songs from The River featured. And it ends like a blood-splattered New Jersey Hamlet, if Hamlet survived and had the build of a washed-up action star. But more than anything, its actors are just too famous. With Harvey Keitel and Ray Liotta rounding out the top-billed cast, the movie is like a fantasy football league of Hollywood wise guys. Take a shot every time you see a future Sopranos star and you’ll die.
As much as I love the chintzy package in which the gift of “You blew it!” is delivered, it is perhaps even better on its own. Because like most iconic film lines — especially of the non sequitur variety — the joy is not so much in rewatching as reciting.
In the case of “You blew it!,” that recitation also happens to contain a therapeutic element. As our collective political and social hell encroaches further into my personal psychic space every day, opportunities for catharsis feel diminishing. Fortunately, shouting absurdities remains free and somewhat effective. I’d never begrudge anyone a wordless scream, but consider introducing “You blew it!” into rotation. Whether you’ve seen Cop Land or not, it works like a charm. Your friend’s a half hour late to dinner? “You blew it!” Your cat knocks over a planter, spilling dirt and ceramic shards everywhere? “You blew it!” You miss a deadline, lose an earring, say something embarrassing at a party? “You blew it!,” but in the mirror this time. The key is to imitate De Niro as closely as possible: elongate the vowel sound, round your mouth into the widest O you can make without injuring yourself, and what sounds like an admonishment becomes instantly, inexplicably hilarious.
Just skip the sandwich, maybe — that’s a choking hazard.