(L-R) Ben Foster, Sammy Boyarsky, Woody Harrelson, Oren Moverman, Brie Larson and Anne Heche at TheWrap's Awards Season Screening Series Presents "Rampart" - Portraits on November 21, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. (Getty Images)more pics » The Bottom Line
Should you see it?
Woody Harrelson provides an intense portrait of a violent dirty cop and rules every scene he's in.
Rampart deals with one of the more compelling cinematic subjects: a dirty cop. Blessed with an impressive pedigree, including director/co-writer Oren Moverman and co-writer James Ellroy, Rampart succeeds in shedding a light on an amoral racist rogue of a police officer while never ignoring the character's humanity.
Credit Woody Harrelson for his harrowing turn as David Brown, a LAPD veteran who doesn't shy away from bending the law to suit his career and temperment. On the surface, Brown is a riveting character. Cops, especially those in bigger cities, must be of a certain nature to even want to do the job. Are cops, by nature, violent and megalomanical to begin with? Should we blame them? On the front lines of daily crime, police men and women risk their lives to do a job. Who is anyone to judge how they get through it?
The namesake of the film is the LAPD's notoriously corrupt Rampart division. Fans of the TV series The Shield will be familiar with the division. Moverman and Ellroy's script do not attempt the same kind of look at the department, however. The script is really a character study. Moverman directs with scattered scenes that simply show Brown's struggle. If life is a chessboard, Brown is a manic child, trampling the pieces and punching holes in the board.
The film is set in 1999 when the Rampart division gained national press for dealing drugs and doling out brutality in one of the country's largest police scandals. If you've read any of Ellroy's books (L.A. Confidential) you know this is not new territory for him. He is keenly interested in the morality of the police and how these men go about their days.
Brown walks and talks with the intense confidence of a veteran. The film opens as he and his partner wax pretentiously with a rookie officer on a break. Brown says the LAPD used to be "a soldiers' department," and laments the current scandal and the department's response to it. Brown is a man without a country, a remnant of the old-school, thuggish LAPD that made Rodney King a household name and ran LA for years with racism and intimidation under the guise of "protect and serve."
Moverman directs Rampart within an episodic format. The film does not flow well narratively, but it's not supposed to. There is not one central struggle, but many, as Brown's life's complications are myriad. At home, Brown's two ex-wives (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon) live in adjacent houses with their daughters. Brown wanders in and out, mostly trying to connect with his kids and not piss off the exes too much. Their living arrangement is tentative and it's clear Brown must censor himself if he wants to stay.
On the job, Brown becomes the center of another scandal when he is recorded beating a suspect in broad daylight. He personifies the embattled department and is explained the full-breadth of his assault by politicians (Steve Buscemi) and the district attorney's office (Sigourney Weaver). Brown proves to be more than they bargained for, however, as he tries to go head to head with them, citing precedent by case number and showing zero remorse.
Off-duty, Brown womanizes and pulls off shady jobs with the help of a crooked ex-cop buddy (Ned Beatty). He meets a lawyer (Robin Wright) who likes him, but may have it in for him. When the ex-wives toss him out, his daughters reject him, and his moonlighting goes wrong, Brown implodes and is faced with something he may not be able to handle: being alone.
Harrelson's performance is what makes Rampart. It may be his best. Brown is unsympathetic and no hero, but he is human, and Harrelson's deft maneuvering of the man is why we care. Moverman teamed with Harrelson previously, along with Ben Foster, who has a small role here, on The Messenger. That film was well-received and Rampart proves the director is no fluke. Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski's use of tight close-ups gives the entire film a claustrophobic feel. Brown's life is closing in on him, and the camera allows the audience to feel that. Whizzing by in the background are the streets and lights of Los Angeles. Smoggy and blindingly sunny, the city acts as another character, watching Brown at every turn. As with The Messenger, Moverman has crafted another meticulous, serious drama that defies cliche and remains original.
See photos from the Rampart premiere: