Saturday, November 26, 2011


Troubled Mind, Corrupt Soul, Tormented Heart

Woody Harrelson as LAPD officer Dave Brown in Oren Moverman's drama "Rampart". 
Millennium Entertainment


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
ay, November 26, 2011

"I don't stop to see if there's a photographer nearby when I do the people's dirty work," says Los Angeles Police Department officer Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson), during a scene in "Rampart", Oren Moverman's second feature film, which opened in New York City and Los Angeles on Wednesday for a one-week Oscar-qualifying run before opening in February nationwide.  "Rampart", written by Mr. Moverman and James Ellroy, is in part set in, and based on, the 1999 corruption scandal that rocked L.A. and brought down dozens of criminal cops from the LAPD's Rampart Division in America's biggest instance of widespread police criminality ever. 

Dave Brown -- known affectionately by fellow officers as "Date-Rape Dave" after his murder of a date rapist -- defends Los Angeles as if it were a star on the American flag.  Dave believes L.A. is under siege and that he's the only one who cares to protect it from crime.  He's continuously isolated by his self-deluded righteousness, in denial about his own excessive force and brutality against what he terms "bad people".  He thinks it peculiar that the LAPD spends all its money going after "decent cops".  The L.A. police chief (Sigourney Weaver) isn't swayed or impressed by Dave's charm or his vague protestations of innocence. 

A failure at the California Bar Exam, Dave readily quotes questionable legal case precedent to defend himself against a dogged D.A. (Steve Buscemi) who sees right through him.  Dave's family life is like Los Angeles itself: all over the map.  Like Richard Gere's corrupt cop Dennis Peck of "Internal Affairs", Dave has two wives -- who happen to be sisters and live under the same roof with their daughters and Dave -- but there are growing fissures in the living arrangements. 

Mr. Moverman, who crafted the best film of 2009 with his debut "The Messenger" (with Mr. Harrelson and Ben Foster, in a small role here), builds a Los Angeles that is confining and insular, the L.A. that Angelenos see everyday from behind their steering wheel but don't step into unless they have to.  Skylines and cars symbolize and frame the disconnect alienating Dave from the city he serves and protects.  The boundaries of Los Angeles are outlined by the language of characters on the street.  In the director's vision the sprawling city is made very small, and Dave is made even smaller as a small-minded man, a racist, a misogynist, a homophobe, a womanizer and a self-loathing cop -- as his eldest daughter reminds him. 

Dave is trapped not just by the squeeze the LAPD and D.A.'s office put on him but also by his own loneliness and realization that 24 years of "police work" may not be enough to avoid jail time.  Dave believes he's an innocent man, and Mr. Moverman doesn't indict him.  Despite a series of disconnected moments that splinter the rhythm of "Rampart" at times, the director's focus stays largely intimate, taking one police officer caught in the web of scandal and charting his slow, sure and steady decline into despair.  Dave glimpses his family of women, and there's a sense that he may never see them again. 

Mr. Harrelson is very good as the corrupt-to-the-core Dave, and gives the most achingly human performance of his career.  Dave's remorse for his situation -- and not for the plight of those at the other end of his gun -- bleeds through the screen.  Mr. Harrelson doesn't portray Dave in an obvious, heavy-handed manner.  He allows subtle physical gestures, silences and the vibrant cinematography of Bobby Bukowski to define a complicated character who but for his long history of horrific deeds and anti-social disposition might actually have it in him to be a good guy.  Dave isn't black-and-white, and accordingly Mr. Harrelson shades him well, making him scared, desperate, hateful and pathetic.  We know that Dave knows deep down that he's done wrong despite everything, but Mr. Harrelson won't allow Dave to admit that he has until it's too late.  Dave's violent actions always speak louder than his words.

"Rampart" is an effective psychological profile of a cop who has outsmarted himself into thinking that he is on the right side of the law.  Dave, a man under pressure and continuously on the margins and amongst those who live there, probably thinks he should be given a key to the city for his overzealous dedication to public service.  "Rampart" isn't about corruption per se; it's about the erosion of the soul, the disintegration of the mind from reality, and the paranoia that breeds helplessness and heartache.  The film is also about the old guard of the LAPD being replaced by an authoritarian desire to clean house of its throwbacks to rugged, brutal policing. 

Often visually arresting, "Rampart" is average at best as a film but is a searing, razor-sharp drama made indelible by Mr. Harrelson's downward spiral.

Casting Ms. Weaver as the calm but no-b.s. police chief opposite Mr. Harrelson's Dave was clever.  Ms. Weaver, who's over six-feet tall and has played a litany of tough ladies in James Cameron films ("Aliens", "Avatar") and other movies ("Alien", "Death And The Maiden") conveys her physicality in a tidy yet imposing manner in one scene with Mr. Harrelson at an elevator bank.  By this scene we've already seen Dave's brutality in full force but we also know and believe that Ms. Weaver's character could probably kick Dave up and down the floor if she had to.  It's Ms. Weaver's cool, assured authority that towers over both Mr. Harrelson's character and the screen, albeit in a very discreet way.  (Many of the characters in Dave's domestic life however, remain thinly drawn, in one of the weaker aspects of the script.)

"Rampart" boasts an array of good ensemble performances, most notably from Ice Cube as a District Attorney investigator, Ned Beatty as a semi-retired L.A. police officer with ties to powerful brass pulling strings to keep Dave out of a potential jail sentence, and Robin Wright as a defense attorney who has connections to one of Dave's past criminal incidents.  Sometimes these characters, especially Mr. Beatty's, just seem to pop out of nowhere, right on cue.  Thanks to Mr. Harrelson's palpable work we care about where Dave ends up despite his zealotry, but do we care enough about the film overall?  I didn't.

With: Anne Heche, Brie Larson, Cynthia Nixon, Stella Schnabel, Audra McDonald, Robert Wisdom, Jon Foster.

"Rampart" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for pervasive language, sexual content and some violence.  The film's running time is one hour and 48 minutes.

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