Officer Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) is a Vietnam vet and LAPD patrolman with his own sense of justice and morality. He lives with his two ex-wives (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon) who happen to be sisters, and picks up random women in alcohol-fuelled benders. However it is an inconvenient time for cops who behave like action heroes; when Brown is caught on tape beating a suspect, his professional and personal lives spiral out of control, and he begins to question his very being.
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: Rampart is a good movie about a bad cop. Oren Moverman, who made the grim drama The Messenger a few years ago, directs and co-wrote the profane, complicated and compelling script with that master of hard-boiled fiction James Ellroy. As in Ellroy’s best work the main character here lives in a twilight zone of anti-social impulses, psycho-babble and lofty rationalisations intended to alibi his compulsive violence. Or to put it another way Rampart is not a 'bad cop’ movie in the renegade-but-chivalrous tradition of say Dirty Harry. It’s about a bad guy who hides behind a job.
Dave has a way of zeroing in on vulnerability, pretension or piety and pounding it to pulp. He throws words like punches.
In it Woody Harrelson plays an archetypal Ellroy tough cop, who has the scary nickname 'Date Rape Dave’. He’s so-called because legend has it he shot dead a serial rapist, rather than see the guy go through the courts. Late in the movie we find out the story has some truth to it.
Shot digitally by Bobby Bukowski, LA here is a city of dark places, and too-bright sunlight. Whatever it is, it doesn’t look wholesome, but weathered and beaten down.
With his shaved head, big shoulders, prominent forehead and searching, cruel eyes, Harrelson’s Dave Brown, a uniformed cop in LA’s notorious Rampart division, has the sleek look of a big dog always primed for the hunt.
Early in the movie we see Dave and a couple of cop mates taking a lunch break at an outdoor diner, amongst them a young female officer. Dave doesn’t like the way she’s eating lunch. He bullies her into eating something she can’t stomach. That’s Dave’s personality in microcosm.
The first part of Rampart provides a portrait sketch of Dave’s universe and personal style. Typically for an Ellroy protagonist he’s not only an intimidating physical presence; his talk is eloquent, persuasive and scathing in its convictions. Dave has a way of zeroing in on vulnerability, pretension or piety and pounding it to pulp. He throws words like punches.
He is a poor father. His two daughters are frightened of him. His has two ex-wives, sisters, brilliantly played for exhausted patience and weary tolerance by Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon. These two live in one house with the kids, while Dave makes a home in the place next door. Clearly it’s not a healthy arrangement. Dave finds himself begging his ex-wives for sex. When he’s not doing that he’s on the prowl in bars. He picks up Robin Wright, a lawyer with a potty mouth. This liaison turns out to be mutually satisfying sexually, but like most of Dave’s relationships it quickly turns toxic. Dave is too full of suspicion, too frightened of losing himself, to truly embrace tenderness.
The film’s plot is vintage Ellroy; it’s a tale of damage control in the face of unbridled violence, corruption and racism. And of course in Ellroy no correction is ever truly possible.
Dave is caught on camera beating a witness (one of several direct references the film makes to the 20-year-old Rodney King outrage).
Sigourney Weaver, a senior cop, urges Dave to pull in his head, retire, to save all much embarrassment. Dave refuses and internal affairs in the guise of Ice T (a terrific performance), launches an investigation into Dave’s nefarious activities.
The rest of the movie has Dave running with nowhere to hide. He tries all kinds of tactics to distract and divert the investigation but every move he makes is a false one. His downward spiral feels inevitable and one-by-one all allies, old and new, can’t check his fall. The cast is fine and Harrelson is simply superb.
This is a grim film with some enduring Ellroy trademarks; gallows humour, exquisitely detailed characters, and a savage irony. Dave’s unique pathology aside, Rampart poses the question, who is really responsible for him? By the time Dave’s masters get around to answering that brain twister its all way to late. So much for political expediency.