Rampart is a gritty cop drama from 2011, directed by Oren Moverman, and co-written by the director with the LA crime novelist James Ellroy. Woody Harrelson stars as bent cop Dave Brown, an officer in the LAPD’s infamous Rampart Division, which came under investigation in the late 1990s for widespread corruption – racism, bribery, violence, drug dealing…all manner of badness.
Brown is a tough, unlikeable man, and is billed on the film poster as “the most corrupt cop you’ve ever seen on screen”. (I dunno, I can think of some pretty dishonest police officers. More corrupt than either incarnation of the Bad Lieutenant, for example? Really?) He is necessarily hardened after years of patrol on gang-heavy streets, and I’m not for one minute doubting that doing that kind of job would alter one’s general outlook on life, but this is a trait that many cinema-goers have seen time and time again and it’s becoming a little boring. It’s not the only cop cliche on show, either. He is shown driving around in his squad car to begin with, but pretty soon he’s dispensing tired old sexist views to female officers and beating up arrested suspects (black and Hispanic). Despite a respected record of convictions, it seems Dave has a problem with certain members of his community. The rest of his persona is fleshed out with the usual facts: he’s a war veteran, he drinks, he’s divorced, although in a slight deviation from the ‘cop norm’ he still kind of lives with both of his ex-wives, Catherine and Barbara (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon), who are neighbours. Complicating the home life even further, the two are actually sisters, and Dave cheated on them both. You’d think it would make for a slightly frosty atmosphere round the dinner table, but it’s not too bad at the beginning of the film, despite one or two issues with his teenage daughter.
Dave’s (barely-believable) sexual magnetism is in evidence when he’s out and about in LA, too. Cruising the bar scene (and S&M club scene at one point), he sleeps with women like lawyer Linda Fentress (Robin Wright), who seems besotted with him despite the fact that Dave’s charming nickname is ‘Date Rape’ – given to him after he apparently got away with killing a date rapist in police custody years earlier. His daughter even calls him ‘Date Rape’ to his face. Dave seems happy to tell women his nickname while he is actually on dates with them.
When Brown is caught on camera nearly beating a man to death, he finds himself under investigation, targeted principally by Ice Cube’s internal affairs agent Kyle Timkins. This upsets three police authority figures to different extents, each of whom is played by an actor making an all-too-brief cameo (Steve Buscemi, Sigourney Weaver and The Wire‘s Robert Wisdom). While this vicious beating, echoing that of Rodney King, is looped on TV news across the country, Dave fails to keep a low profile, and when he is caught up in a suspicious shooting it’s the final straw for a department desperately trying to improve its public image. He is asked to either retire or face sanctions.
Rampart delves into police politics without ever really being an overtly political film, which is both a blessing and a curse. A different script may have focused more on the Rampart division itself, or even found more room for Buscemi and Ice Cube, both of whom shine in their brief moments on screen. Or even Brown’s dirty ex-cop mentor Hartshorn (Ned Beatty). Instead the film relies somewhat on its audience to either know the background detail to the Rampart scandal or to seek the information out after viewing. Detailed knowledge of the division isn’t absolutely necessary, but it will help to illuminate the movie.
Still, it’s interesting to view the character and ponder how the world has changed from the Popeye Doyles or Harry Callahans of the 1970s, when a cop could safely smash the face in of any old sleaze bag he wanted to on the streets of American City X, dishing out manly rough justice while wearing plenty of Old Spice.
But, conversely, it’s a blessing in the sense that the focus of the film is squarely on Brown, rather than any detailed exposition of the machinations of internal affairs or a corrupt police department. The film is about a faulty cog in a faulty wheel, rather than the wheel itself, and while the character isn’t particularly pleasant, it does mean we get to see a lot of Woody Harrelson’s excellent performance, which really lifts the movie. Harrelson is particularly good once the tired old cliches of the character have been dealt with, with the final powerful act in particular concentrating on Brown’s ability to live with his past actions.
Moverman also made 2009’s The Messenger* with Harrelson, for which both were Oscar nominated (the former for his screenplay; Buscemi also appeared), so the partnership is clearly a fruitful one so far. These LA streets are familiar thanks to many a gang-related film, but most notably perhaps Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day. To say that the film is similar to Training Day, however, just because some of the subject matter is the same, is wide of the mark. Training Day is the more ‘exciting’ of the two, but perhaps a little too definite in the way it draws the line between good cop and bad cop (or rather good man / bad man), where no-one shall ever stray to the other side.
Rampart is an easy film to admire, but a tough one to love. It is a well-acted piece that concentrates on one man’s corruption, but it is hard going, and there is no light to its relentless shade. Brown is a fascinating character, in the sense that he is intelligent enough to be capable of forming relationships with others in his personal life (though whether he is able to maintain them is a different matter), but any sympathies we may start to have with him disappear when we see his professional (or rather ‘unprofessional’) actions. It isn’t an inventive drama, but its focus on the principal character’s story is very tight, and interesting to follow. Worth seeing especially for Woody Harrelson’s intense performance: despite the fact the character type is so familiar, the actor breathes new life into it.
Directed by: Oren Moverman
Written by: Oren Moverman, James Ellroy
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Anne Heche, Robin Wright, Ned Beatty, Ice Cube, Sigourney Weaver, Cynthia Nixon
Running Time: 102 Minutes