|Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) in Rampart.|
By Ed Rampell
Character studies can simply be presented as straightforward dramas. Or they can be encoded in genre conventions, which might improve their box office heft with the multiplex popcorn crowd. For instance, on the surface Bridesmaids is a wild and crazy comedy about females behaving badly. However, it is also -- or really -- about commitment-phobic, lonely, aging Annie Walker (Kristen Wiig) and her problems relating to and connecting with lovers and friends.
In the same way, Oren Moverman’s Rampart is about a bad cop behaving badly and worse. “Date Rape” Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) is enmeshed in police department corruption on steroids, specifically the “Rampart scandal” that shook the anti-gang unit of LAPD’s Rampart Division in the late 1990s. Brown operates within the framework of police brutality gone berserk, as the men in blue willy-nilly pummeled suspects black and blue, planted evidence such as illegal drugs, peddled narcotics and perpetrated one of the worst, most far reaching cases of proven police misconduct in U.S. history. Indeed, instead of “serving and protecting” the Rampart section of Los Angeles, the criminal LAPD officers who ran amok were way worse than gangbangers, as they were protected by badges and uniforms, and our man Brown seems like one of the most rabid of these mad dogs in blue.
However, beneath the surface, Harrelson is providing an intimate portrayal of a man who is undergoing a severe midlife crisis. Indeed, Brown, who is a military (perhaps Vietnam?) veteran, is coming apart at the seams. Both his professional and private life is falling apart. His unusual living arrangement with, if I understood correctly, both of his ex-wives -- who are, strangely enough, also sisters -- Cynthia Nixon (Sex in the City’s Miranda) and Anne Heche (co-star of another HBO comedy, Hung), is likewise disintegrating.
To be fair to the bedeviled Brown, he does strive to be a good father to his daughters, little Margaret (Sammy Boyarsky) and teenager Helen (Brie Larson), who creates sexually charged artwork that would make a Madonna backup dancer, well, backup, and whose sexual preference, Rampart suggests, is being shaped by her ne’er do well dad.
Like a latter day John Wayne character, Brown lives by a moral code, believing that “soldiers” like him are part of the thin blue line, all that’s standing between law abiding citizens and the jungle out there. Like the Duke in innumerable Westerns, Brown’s vision of his role is racially tinged. What Brown fails to realize is that his Tarzan is worse than the “apes” who may be swinging on the vines of the banyan trees.
Although he’s clearly an antihero at best, what mitigates Harrelson’s character is that he picks up and beds attractive women (Audra McDonald and Robin Wright) during the course of the movie. Nothing warms the cockles (so to speak) of the male moviegoer’s heart more than onscreen masculine conquests, so this makes the mostly despicable Brown more appealing. However, upon closer inspection, his relationships with these women, as with his ex-wife sisters (and daughters) ranges from alienation (from Sartre to Camus to Genet on the estrangement scale) to tortured.
Harrelson’s acting ranges, like his character, from over the top to nuanced, and the now 50-plus actor’s body fits Brown’s persona, as an aging man who has seen better days and is losing his grip. In addition to Harrelson giving one of his best performances ever, the topnotch cast also includes Steve Buscemi and Sigourney Weaver as civilians who try to rein in the out of control Brown’s reign of terror and Ned Beatty as a onetime dirty cop (now a filthy ex-cop). Ice Cube plays the inevitable Internal Affairs-type investigator who tries to nail Harrelson’s wayward peace officer. Ben Foster, who co-starred with Harrelson in Moverman’s outstanding 2009 antiwar drama The Messenger, has a small role, if not a cameo, rather craftily playing a wheelchair-bound veteran.
Helming his second feature, Moverman proves himself once again to be a director of conscience, consciousness and cinematic ability. Rampart has great close-ups (including opening shots that evoke Brown’s hard ass persona) and a good use of subjective camera. Moverman goes all sixties cinema in a freewheeling sex club scene that reminded me of the Warholian party in 1969’s Midnight Cowby; I half expected Dustin Hoffman to appear, denouncing: “Wackos! They’re all a bunch of wackos!” Moverman’s movies move.
He also co-wrote the script with James Ellroy (1997’s L.A. Confidential), no stranger to the cops gone bad genre. In 1969, New York Mayor John Lindsay assigned NYPD brass and officers to see Costa-Gavras’ classic Z which, among other things, deals with police excessive use of force. Here’s hoping Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa will likewise make Rampart required viewing for all of those city officials who ordered law enforcers to raid the Occupy L.A. encampment at City Hall, along with the 1,400 LAPD pigs and others who participated. Perhaps a few light bulbs may go off above the heads of the police force notorious for its history of excessive use of force: Brutalizing Rodney King; cowardly fleeing L.A. when rioters outnumbered and outgunned them; perpetrating the Rampart scandal; assaulting innocent demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention; attacking journalists and peaceful protesters at a May Day rally; laying siege to Occupy L.A.; etc. Yes, “o’er the ramparts we watched, were so ungallantly streaming…”