REVIEW: Rampart [2011]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 108 minutes | Release Date: November 23rd, 2011 (USA)
Studio: Millennium Entertainment
Director(s): Oren Moverman
Writer(s): James Ellroy and Oren Moverman

“You can’t cheat on something you never committed to”

After making a splash with his directorial debut The Messenger, writer/director Oren Moverman continues to delve into the subject matter of conflicted heroes and misunderstood men with Rampart. His focus is a veteran soldier once again, but this time far removed from his stint in Vietnam. A rough and tumble cop in the LAPD Rampart Division, his notoriety for ‘possibly’ killing an accused serial rapist years earlier has allowed him certain freedoms during the infamous 1990s scandal embroiling his department that will eventually name seventy plus officers as corrupt. Over-zealous doesn’t begin to describe his actions as the badge holds power he’s unafraid to wield. As 1999 arrives with the city desperate to shift focus, his volatile nature sets him up to be a prime scapegoat for the vulturous media to feast on.

Co-written by James Ellroy—no stranger to corrupt cops with L.A. Confidential, Street Kings, and The Black Dahlia under his belt—the film is more Bad Lieutenant than Training Day. Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) is a breed of black and white from a past generation existing on a steady diet of sex, bigotry, and violence. Smarter than he looks and able to quote any precedence-setting case from America’s judiciary history, Brown is a dangerous mix of wannabe lawyer and take-no-prisoners warden of the ‘jungle’. His latest beating of a black man is caught on tape and while the department would love to give him early retirement and wash their hands clean, his tenacity and intelligence threaten to tangle the LAPD up in even more red tape if they try to force him out.

By no means a role model, the city has a fearful respect of his actions. Able to blackmail hotel concierges and pharmacists into giving him what he wants in return for keeping quiet about their indiscretions, Brown has lived his life as though invincible. No different behind closed doors—his daughters were conceived by two sisters married consecutively, not concurrently—he trolls bars and beds whomever are willing. Friends are few and far between besides an ex-cop from his father’s time (Ned Beatty) trying to live vicariously through his old apprentice still busting heads. This latest scuffle and suspension, however, throws it all in jeopardy as his ex-wives and kids open their eyes to the monster in their midst. Paranoia sets in and thoughts of the camera filming him not being from an innocent bystander but an elaborate ruse by his superiors take shape.

The mayor Bill Blago (Steve Busecemi) and department spokeswoman Joan Confrey (Sigourney Weaver) desperately look for ways to spin things positively, but everything has spiraled out of control. In a dizzying scene of panning cameras as they speak with Brown, we acknowledge reconciliation isn’t possible—they need to back their man or watch him set fire to them all. But despite appearing to have the upper hand, money issues force Dave into needing a score to make ends meet with two mortgages, two exes, and his own self-destructive vices. Beatty’s deceivingly cunning godfather figure finds the perfect opportunity and tips Brown to a high stakes poker game he’ll happily take a cut from. Like everything else, though, the shady takedown hits a snag when a couple gangbangers bust in with guns drawn.

Brown now needs damage control for a public beating, a robbery report full of discrepancies, and the ancient murder looming large in his past. With drugs and alcohol helping his decent, a handicapped snitch named General (Ben Foster) who may have seen too much and a new love interest (Robin Wright) who turns out to be a defense attorney strengthen his belief that Big Brother schemes are trying to take him down. An investigation into his jacket commences with Ice Cube’s Kyle Timkins on his tail just as Brown’s demons rise to consume him. His girls, Helen (Brie Larson) and Margaret (Sammy Boyarsky), hold onto the thin hope the rumors are false, but family, friends, lovers, and his job have deserted him. Alone and without options, he doesn’t have much time to set things right.

Largely a showcase for Harrelson—who wouldn’t surprise me to make the shortlist for the Best Actor Oscar—Rampart is a gritty drama that reaches into the depths of hell and questions the effectiveness of law enforcement with bureaucratically tied hands. Many call Brown a hero for cleaning the streets while others deem him a monster no better than those he beats within an inch of life. But, like his character says, why was he picked when so many others don’t ‘get the job’ like he does? He fights crime, never killed anyone who didn’t have it coming, and makes Los Angeles a better place for his family. Unfortunately for him, vigilantism is no longer something the department can sweep under the rug and while patting backs outside the watchful eye of the public. What made Brown a hero before is exactly what now labels him a villain.

Moverman moves the camera in close to see every minute detail in Harrelson’s face and mannerisms as he loses control. Fearing everyone he loves has turned on him, he no longer can discern friend and foe. This self-destruction isn’t pretty as it culminates in a seizure-inducing strobe of images as self-control is replaced by excess and pain. The story pushing him to the brink is intriguing—especially the interactions with Wright and Beatty—but does pale in comparison to the central performance screaming for attention. Emaciated, raw, and at times aggressively scary, one can’t watch Dave Brown and not want him off the streets. We pray for safer cities and police we can trust, but so many forget the logistics of following rules in order to enforce them. A little renegade justice may not be a bad thing, but at what point does bending the law turn into a sociopathic joy for the hunt of our fellow man?

[1] Woody Harrelson star as David Douglas Brown in Millennium Entertainment ‘Rampart.’
[2] Ben Foster as General Terry and Woody Harrelson as David Douglas Brown in Rampart.
[3] Robin Wright as Linda Fentress and Woody Harrelson as David Douglas Brown in Rampart.

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