Stars: Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster, Sigourney Weaver, Steve Buscemi, Jon Bernthal, Robin Wright, Brie Larson, Anne Heche, Ice Cube, Ned Beatty, Cynthia Nixon
Set in early 1990s Los Angeles, veteran police officer Dave Brown, the last of the renegade cops, works to take care of his family, and struggles for his own survival.
Good God does James Ellroy love writing about corrupt cops. They are the most interesting police officers to write, and read, about. Actually, if someone were to write a story about actual police officers and their everyday lives it would probably be as boring to watch as to live through. Maybe Dogme 85 could take it on.
But until they do corrupt cops it is and Ellroy and co-writer/director Owen Moverman (“The Messengers”) have come up with a generally interesting and somewhat original take on the genre in “Rampart.” The LAPD Rampart division scandal exposing the rampant corruption and criminal enterprise the division had turned into rocked the community has since become fodder for several movies and books looking to base their favorite police stories off something which actually happened. You’d be forgiven for thinking Rampart was the rule and not the exception.
This time around Moverman and Ellroy have avoided that fixation by finding a new object of obsession in the form of Officer Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson). A veteran of the division and survivor of the scandal which ruined so many careers, Brown in cagey, engrossing and smart. A study in contrasts, as so many good characters are, Brown is a failed law student who can see all the angles and is perfectly content being the big fish in his little pond centered on Rampart Avenue. For all his brutality and rationalizing of his criminal behavior he is a man with some regard for human life who will balk at shooting an unarmed suspect even if it is in his best interest. He is a devoted family man who loves the daughters he’s had with a pair of intellectual, artistic sisters (Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon), who he lives with despite being divorced from both of them.
He also has a foul temper, sleeps around, drinks far too much and is extremely paranoid, all of which combine to make him a greater danger to himself than anyone else around him. If anything, “Rampart” strange reversal of classic tragedy, one asking if the fall of a bad man from his height of power due to his own chronic defects counts as tragic. It’s not a new notion by any means; film has been doing at least since James Cagney and “The Public Enemy.” But in the filmmaker’s complex and unique conception of Brown, and Harrelson’s titanic portrayal of him, they have created something new and interesting.
Despite being experienced in the streets and how to make his way about them like a shark always looking for its next sport, Brown’s bad habits eventually catch up with him in the form of a video tape of him beating a citizen which becomes an instant replay on the nightly news. Despite turning to every contact he has Brown finds himself rapidly being backed into a corner, investigated by a dogged internal affairs officer (Ice Cube) and worst of all losing contact with those he truly cares most about.
Though he is surrounded by an exceptional well-chosen supporting cast, particularly Ned Beatty as his corrupt cop mentor trying to help him through his ‘tough spot’ it is Harrellson who is undoubtedly the center of the film. Despite some of the plot twistiness that marks much of Ellroy’s work “Rampart” is ultimately a character study. Forced to look at himself starkly and bereft of his normal line of bullshit, Brown finds that he both cannot stand the man he is and has no idea how to be otherwise. He has been living in denial and does not at all appreciate the clarity that comes with seeing through himself.
It is one of the hardest things in drama to make a truly unlikeable character that you end up feeling for. The first part is easy but the second slips through talented filmmakers fingers like greased sunbeams. Moverman and Harrelson have managed both, and done so without ever turning him into someone you can actually root for. A colorful cast is just added ammunition for Moverman’s gun but as any Russian roulette player can tell you, the one that gets you is the only one you really need. Harrellson is that one and more so, creating one of the best on-screen self-destructions of the year and setting the bar high for the rest of this new decade.