Director: Oren Moverman Run time: 108 min
Reviewed by Delme Stephenson
Woody Harrelson demands our full admiration with a tour de force performance in director Oren Moverman's Rampart. Its the second time that the director and star have collaborated together, the first being the critically acclaimed The Messenger, for which Harrelson was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar. This time Harrelson is very much in the driving seat as a corrupt LAPD police officer spiraling out of control in a rapidly changing socio-political environment.
Rampart is first and foremost a character study of a man slowly pushed to his limits. It’s also a clearly well versed neo-noir that comprehends the mechanics of the corrupt cop film. Harrelson is undoubtedly excellent in the lead and his performance is complemented by Moverman's unconventional artistic approach. While the film boasts a superb supporting cast and is co-written by the legendary James Ellroy many viewers may find the piece surprisingly restrained. Regardless, this is an intelligent, angry and subversive film - even if it quite can’t contend with Harrelson’s searing performance.
Although the Rampart corruption scandal which effectively smeared the reputation of the Los Angeles Police Department in the late 1990s isn’t explicitly alluded to in the film, it lurks in the shadows taunting our protagonist Dave ‘Date Rape’ Brown (Harrelson). It’s 1999 and we are nearing the height of the scandal, yet for Brown it’s a storm on the far horizon or clearly out of view. Brown from the outset casually dispenses his own form of police work, which includes aggressively manhandling suspects and intimidating fellow colleagues. However Brown’s relaxed deviant disposition at work is in surprising conflict with his personal life. He has a rather complicated and bohemian setup with two sisters (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon), both ex wives and both mothers to his two children. He fills his nights by skillfully charming and picking-up women at bars whilst sneaking into his room at the back of the house in the early morning. Unfortunately for Brown, the storm hits as he is caught on videotape severely beating a man who crashes into his patrol car. Refusing to step down, the eloquent Brown faces-off against a LAPD lawyer (Sigourney Weaver). Down on his luck and in need of help, Brown seeks out an old friend and mentor figure who gives him information on a score. When his dirty deed goes haywire, paranoia kicks in and so does an Internal Affairs officer (Ice Cube) who is relentless in his pursuit of his prey.
Harrelson is a talented and versatile actor but has been predominately stuck in supporting or light weight comedic roles, his most recent appearances in 2012 and Friends with Benefits were baffling choices for an actor of his caliber. While Harrelson can easily conjure a superb leading man performance in films such as The People vs. Larry Flint, White Men Can’t Jump and Natural Born Killers he has always been prolific. But it’s great to see him in a lead performance that really allows him to dazzle. Dave Brown is a complex character, in a confined situation and yet Harrelson plays him with unexpected and unpredictable grace. He is a dirty cop who has crossed the line years ago. We are supposed to despise him but Harrelson makes him all too human. It’s a fearless and affecting performance and Harrelson deserves the critical acclaim.
While Harrelson is in every scene, other capable cast members are seemingly relegated to cameo appearances. Steve Buscemi, Cynthia Nixon, and Ben Foster share a limited amount of screen time and then seemingly disappear into the void. I would have loved to have seen much more of Weaver’s humane but incredibly shrewd lawyer on the screen - although the actress makes full use of her small but pivotal role, as too does veteran actor Ned Beatty. While it is Harrelson’s show and cast members makes their presence felt, in many instances it feels as though they are underused or that their character’s relationship to the protagonist is underdeveloped. Rampart’s main problem is that it sets in to motion too many relationships and doesn't feel the need to resolve them. However the story arc relating to Harrelson’s relationship with his eldest daughter played by Brie Larson is definitely a success.
There is much to appreciate in director Oren Moverman’s technique; his treatment of the story is sublimely reflective considering the genre and its combustible subject matter. All the noir elements are present and yet Moverman shoots with extreme close-ups which allows the audience to mediate and focus on the main character (it is first and foremost a character piece after all).
James Ellroy has been co-credited along with director Oren Moverman with writing the script. Several of Ellroy’s novels have been adapted into films, the most financially and critically acclaimed has been Curtis Hanson’s brilliant retro-noir L.A. Confidential, yet Ellroy also has screen credits for Dark Blue and Street Kings which both focus on crooked veteran LAPD cops. If there is anyone who knows how to write about dirty cops, the dark seedy underbelly of L.A. and the art of Film Noir it is most definitely Ellroy, and his participation in this film certainly doesn’t disappoint. Moverman and Ellroy’s message is largely in touch with the police corruption film and Ellroy’s canon of work. Harrelson’s dirty cop is looking for redemption yet he’s ideals are corrupt only because they are no longer in tandem with the ideology of the LAPD. In films where the good cop challenges his corrupt colleagues (Copland, Serpico, Training Day, Internal Affairs) the message is that there are a few rotten apples and once they are dispensed with the system will be fine. Rampart doesn’t hold much faith in that message. Harrleson’s character is tolerated by the police force until he becomes a visible nuance, which is clearly replicated in his personal life. His nickname ‘Date Rape’ is given to him because he supposedly murdered a known serial date rapist and it’s no secret to members in the force and those outside of it. Dave Brown is unfortunately a convenient and necessary scapegoat to a beleaguered institution.
The message of this film is that the dirty cop is only as corrupt as the institution he serves, and the individual is dispensable when the institution no longer needs him. In the real life, the Rampart Scandal found only 24 officers guilty of offences. A former police officer testified that at least 90% of officers in the anti gang unit were ‘in-the-loop’ on offences include bank robbery, narcotics and unprovoked shootings. As Buscemi’s character proudly asserts in regards to Brown’s conduct, “The only thing that’s wrong here is that the camera caught him doing police work”.
Although this is a worthy film, with a scathing political message I do understand it is not without its shortcomings. While Harrelson’s performance reaches out across the screen and pulls you in, the film, regardless of how sublimely crafted it is, doesn’t match Harrleson’s scene destroying pace and appears underwhelming in comparison. However it must be said corrupt cops are always a fascinating species to watch.