Tough LAPD enforcer a character in search of a story in ‘Rampart’
In 2009, filmmaker Oren Moverman staked out his turf with quiet authority in his debut feature, The Messenger. A fraught, yet spare and ultimately moving drama about a wounded young Iraq War vet serving out the rest of his tour Stateside, notifying families that their loved ones have been killed in the war, it featured a towering performance by Ben Foster in the central role. It also provided a showy, profanely funny supporting role for Woody Harrelson as Foster’s new CO, assuaging the harrowing nature of their job with glib wisecracks and plenty of booze, but it was all in pursuit of Moverman’s serious theme, exposing the true cost of warfare, in lives and souls.
For his second film, Rampart, Moverman relocates the action from New Jersey to Los Angeles, and reunites with some key players from the previous film. But this time the ingredients don’t quite gel in the same way. For one thing, Moverman can’t resist turning over the whole movie to Harrelson in the big, juicy starring role of a veteran LAPD cop. It’s a mammoth performance from Harrelson—tough, perverse, sarcastic, haunted—but since he’s onscreen every nanosecond, it’s also a little exhausting. And despite bringing in James Ellroy as Moverman’s co-scripter, murky themes and random storytelling keep the viewer at a distance.
Harrelson stars as Dave “Date Rape” Brown, a hardcore veteran of the department who cruises East L. A. in his patrol car, in glossy aviator shades, an ever-present cigarette clamped in his teeth. Son of a lifelong cop, and himself a Vietnam vet, Dave considers himself the last bastion against the tide of “scum” encroaching on the city. (He got his moniker due to a pervasive rumor—which Dave refuses to confirm or deny—that he once stalked and murdered a known serial date rapist.) But it’s 1999, and he’s also trying to navigate the new world order of surveillance cameras and PR disasters in the wake of the Rodney King beating.
Except, he’s not trying all that hard. Dave believes cops have a righteous mission and that the end justifies the means, and his corresponding views on women’s rights, race relations, and civil liberties in general are cynical at the very best. (“I’m not a racist,” he tells a black department investigator, “I hate all people equally.”) When he bullies a young Latina trainee right out of the Police Academy, we’re meant to view it as his innate paternal concern, as a father with two daughters of his own. But what he views as his manly attempt to “keep his family together” means living in a suburban house with both his ex-wives, who are sisters (Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche), and the daughters he has sired by each one. And for all his posturing as the man of the house, if his exes turn him down for sex (which is most of the time), he spends his nights in bars and motels. Ward Cleaver, he ain’t.
When Dave is caught on video beating the bejazus out of a guy who ran into him in an intersection, the media calls it “Old school LAPD brutality.” Dave thinks his actions were defensible, pointing out to his enraged department head (Sigourney Weaver), “Nine cops out of ten woulda shot him.” The department launches an investigation, and Dave maneuvers around a bar pick-up with an agenda (Robin Wright), a homeless wacko in a wheelchair (Foster, with little to do but chew up some scenery) and a father-figure retired cop (Ned Beatty), trying to figure out who set him up to be a “shit-magnet,” as his world begins to disintegrate.
The problem is, Rampart is a character study in search of a story. The plot makes little practical or thematic sense; the Wright character’s voracious sexual appetite seems a bit far-fetched, and it’s unclear why Dave is still driving around in his patrol car after he’s under investigation. Harrelson’s scenes with Dave’s daughters are the most effective, especially rebellious teen Brie Larson.
But while his circumstances are altered for him, Dave has no interior emotional arc; he behaves with the same smug, self-delusional sense of entitlement throughout, making Rampart a stagnant case history that never evolves into a drama.
★★ (out of four)
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With Woody Harrelson, Robin Wright, and Ned Beatty. Written by James Ellroy and Oren Moverman. Directed by Oren Moverman. A Millennium Entertainment release. Rated R.