Rampart takes its name from the LAPD’s scandal-plagued Rampart division, where dirty cops once rubbed shoulders with drug dealers, undocumented aliens, misfits of all sorts and terrified citizens. And the movie gives you the dirtiest cop you can imagine, a monster conjured forth from a moral sewer by director Oren Moverman and crime novelist James Ellroy— author of a series of noir novels about LAPD’s history of brutality and racism. Played by Woody Harrelson with an intensity that sears the screen, Dave Brown is a loathsome protagonist in a movie that fails to acknowledge any truly good person can possibly exist.
This follow-up to his acclaimed "The Messenger" (2009) finds Moverman again on the prowl for psychological truth amid heightened human emotions and tragedy. But where "The Messenger" found that truth within the trauma of war and its aftermath, "Rampart" finds only emptiness. Thanks to a fine cast and solid production values that plunge a viewer into a complex environment of pungent sights and sounds, "Rampart" could speak to some but most viewers may regard the film’s obsession with such a corrupt soul as more pretentious than enlightening.
The initial expositional scenes are surprisingly clumsy but they do strongly establish that Dave Brown is the worst sort of rogue cop. His nickname alone is a tip-off — Date Rape, in honor of the serial rapist he is alleged to have shot and killed back in the day. Just a bit street justice as far as Dave is concerned.
In conversation, he’ll pretty much diss anyone — women, minorities, politicians, even fellow cops. Much later in the movie he makes the point that he really hates everyone and that this somehow excuses him from any accusation of chauvinism or racism but doesn’t, any more than his claim that he only hurts bad guys exonerates him from rampant vigilantism.
And go figure about his home life: He has somehow had daughters with two sisters (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon) and continues to live with them despite a high level of animosity toward him in an otherwise all-female household. You’ve got to give Moverman and Ellroy credit though for true creativity in their depiction of an evil man.
But where does all this get the filmmakers? As a viewer watches Date Rape Brown slide past episodes of brutality (one caught on camera as with Rodney King) and even murder or fabricate justifications and alibis with convoluted language for doubtful superiors, the police brass, an attorney (Sigourney Weaver) and Internal Affairs guy (Ice Cube), all that is remarkable here is that he remains in uniform.
Nothing quite explains his Teflon-like imperviousness to responsibility for his misdeeds. Nor what greater truth Moverman and Ellroy are after here. The filmmakers want to explore recent American police scandals – the story is set in 1999 — involving corruption, planting of evidence and brutality through a single improbable character. But they never make up their minds what it all means. Brown just continues his downward spiral, making things worse for himself and more miserable for anyone around him with each passing scene.
Dave does encounter a range of personalities throughout the film from a handicapped street misfit (Ben Foster) to a randy lawyer (Robin Wright), retired cop/informant (Ned Beatty) and women he casually picks up or guys he casually beats. You keep waiting for at least one of them to make sense of what’s happening — to be a plant or a snitch or a reckoning of sorts. But, no, they’re just horny women and desperate men who have the bad luck to encounter Brown.
Moverman sets his story in an atmosphere of white noise, of background radios, street protests and snatches of random conversation. Occasionally, he’ll throw in unnecessary camera movements or rough edits — as in a sex club that Brown incongruously visits — as if the movie needs to jar the viewer even more than this character and his salacious life already have. It’s pretentious, of course, but revealing as well: Perhaps even the filmmakers lose faith in the credibility of such an impossibly bad cop and feel a need to distract you with self-conscious fidgetiness.
Harrelson goes full bore from the opening scene and there are no scenes he is not in. But the effect is wearying rather than exhilarating. The sheer repetitiveness of his evil dissipates whatever fascination this dirty cop provokes.