Rampart (Review)

(2/10/12; Drama)
Woody Harrelson, Ned Beatty, Ben Foster, Anne Heche, Ice Cube, Cynthia Nixon, Sigourney Weaver, Robin Wright, Steve Buscemi, Brie Larson
SCR: James Ellroy, Oren Moverman
DIR: Oren Moverman
1 hour 48 mins
MPAA: R for pervasive language, sexual content and some violence.

Every year, there are a handful of great performances that, despite their best efforts to get noticed during award season, fail to make Oscar’s short-list. And even though Woody Harrelson has had his fair share of justified nominations, there is no getting past the fact that he should have made the 2012 class, too.

He plays a dirty LAPD cop at the end of his line. Detective Dave Brown has seen and done it all, and is a clever enough wordsmith to charm and justify his way in and out of just about anything. His nickname is “Date Rape,” stemming from the controversial 1987 shooting of a serial rapist. Everyone knows he did it – and some people even respect him for it – but getting away with it was the first domino to fall.

Now, in 1999, with the Rampart scandal blazing around him, the LAPD is looking for a scapegoat.

Quick history lesson: According to Wikipedia, “The Rampart scandal refers to widespread corruption in the Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (or CRASH) anti-gang unit of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Rampart Division in the late 1990s. More than 70 police officers in the CRASH unit were implicated in misconduct, making it one of the most widespread cases of documented police misconduct in United States history. The convicted offenses include unprovoked shootings, unprovoked beatings, planting of evidence, framing of suspects, stealing and dealing narcotics, bank robbery, perjury, and covering up evidence of these activities.”

Yep, that about sums it up, and “Date Rape” Dave is the poster child for what ails LAPD’s public relations division. He might not have been had he not had rage issues that surfaced during a routine car accident, resulting in the videotaping of the beat-down he dispensed afterward.

Or maybe he was set up. This being a James Ellroy story, it’s not hard to track the internal corruption all the way up to police captain Joan Confrey (Weaver) and beyond. Surprisingly, Rampart keeps the focus on Harrelson the entire time and never even seems concerned with wrapping up the corruption tale. It’s almost as if we should just assume things are rotting from the inside out and there’s really no need to even point that out anymore.

But poor Dave just doesn’t get it. He’s a dinosaur, a womanizer, a misogynist, a racist and bully with a badge, whose silver tongue might be good at quickly getting into the pants of any female he meets, but whose distorted view of the world has not done him any favors regarding his family. He has two daughters from two wives, both sisters. He can recite the law while he’s breaking it, but can’t recognize that his family is emotionally-scarred and why they might blame him.

The film is loaded with name actors showing up for a scene or two, doing solid non-showy work. Robin Wright is particularly tragic as a woman as damaged as he is. Weaver bravely appears free of makeup, letting us see every character line on her 62-year old face, and it’s a breath of fresh air in the land of Botox. Heche and Nixon look natural as sisters; and Beatty represents the old corruption guard. He’s a seasoned vet with a dubious past who could easily be the older version of a corrupt cop from one of Ellroy’s period novels.

Rampart is shot in a skuzzy hand-hand style with an emphasis on smart, imposing sound design. The ambient bass and ever-present Latino music only serves to heighten the tension when the camera isn’t fixed on Harrelson’s face.

It’s a wondrous performance of his, full of arrogance and smarminess with an occasional glimmer when the man actually confronts something he believes. He acts with his entire body, including the back of his balding head, and manages to elicit sympathy where none should exist. In any other crime film, he would be the third lead, the wild card, the scene-stealer who meets a spectacular and satisfying end.

No such favors here. Moviegoers expecting a climactic shootout will be frustrated by the fact that director Moverman is more interested in Date Rape’s state of mind than the plot mechanics. It’s more haunting this way. Sure, all the corruption stuff will sort itself out as it always does. But what happens to Dave isn’t as easily answered.


Author: Dennis Willis

Dennis Willis is an award-winning producer, TV host, producer, director, editor (he preferred Avid until a torrid affair with Adobe Premiere, and the rest is history), author and film critic (print and radio). Dennis produced and hosted the TV programs Reel Life, FilmTrip, Soundwaves (1983-2008) and produces the annual Soundwaves Xmas program. He is currently the film critic on KGO Radio in San Francisco, and a member of both the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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