THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Woody Harrelson's Dave Brown needs to have lunch with Harvey Keitel's bad lieutenant.
After years of brilliantly playing the dim-bulb Woody Boyd on “Cheers,” it came as a surprise to most people when Woody Harrelson was cast as a vicious, unrepentant murderer in Oliver Stone's controversial 1994 film Natural Born Killers. Stone said that he saw “darkness” in Harrelson. He was right, and it was an example of an actor completely smashing our expectations by doing something radically different, and doing it well. Since that time, Harrelson has portrayed other dark characters, but none so dark as Dave Brown, the one he portrays in Rampart.
Brown is a member of the LAPD in the days immediately following the Rampart scandal of the 1990s. Edgy and intense, Brown has rightfully gained a reputation for being a dirty cop. He beats on minorities, steals money, and intimidates anyone he doesn't like. His nickname, “Date Rape Dave,” comes from the suspicion that he may have once murdered a rapist rather than arrest him. His personal life is, in many ways, just as chaotic as his on-the-job behavior. Having impregnated sisters (Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche), Brown insists on keeping everyone together as a “family,” despite their shared unhappiness. One evening, after getting a tip about a high-stakes card came, Brown shows up to bust it and steal the money. The plan goes tragically awry. Ice Cube co-stars as an Internal Affairs officer who begins investigating Brown in the aftermath. With the screws tightening both at work and at home, Brown must finally face the consequences of his choices.
The LAPD has long had a reputation for corruption. Rampart - directed by Oren Moverman (The Messenger) and co-written by novelist James Ellroy – suggests that it is a place where people go to let out their aggression. Dave Brown is just one of many officers who take out their life's hostilities on “bad” guys, almost as though mistreating people is a perk of the job. The film asks, how can there be enforcement of law when law enforcement is itself lawless? Brown has willingly engaged in the kinds of activities he has sworn to prevent. Worse, he feels remorseless about it. The badge and the uniform give him a sense of authority, which he abuses by taking out his personal dysfunctions on other people, all in the name of the law. There are others just like him on the force, maybe worse. This chilling idea runs throughout Rampart.
At the same time, the film is as much a character study as anything. The script expertly weaves Brown through his own self-created hell. Here is a man who has chosen a completely dysfunctional way of dealing with his problems, and now he must watch helplessly as his world crumbles around him. I love the specificity of it, the way we can see how one bad act begets another, and another. There's great drama in watching the screws tighten, both as it becomes apparent that the IA guy will nail him, and as his resentful teen daughter (nicely played by Brie Larson) makes it clear that he's been as bad a father as he has a cop. Rampart is a movie about personal demons left run amok, and the damage they will do.
Harrelson in outstanding in the role of Dave Brown. We feel his anger and rage, and watch in unsettling suspense as he expresses it toward himself and others. It would be easy to hate this guy – and, to be honest, we kind of do – but Harrelson invests him with enough humanity that we can't stop watching him. No spoilers here, but it would be fair to say that Brown develops a tiny bit of insight over the course of the film. Harrelson subtly shows us how this happens, without ever giving the false promise that he's somehow going to do a complete reversal. The supporting actors all do good work too, helping us understand Brown by the varying ways they react to him.
The only thing that doesn't quite work is a subplot involving Dave's relationship with a defense attorney, played by Robin Wright. There's an interesting idea at play – she gets her clients off by exposing cops like him – yet her character isn't developed enough to make that pay off as powerfully as it should. It's the least satisfying strand in the plot.
Rampart has an ending that may be viewed by some as abrupt. I would disagree. This is not a story about whether Dave Brown gets nailed for his misdeeds, nor is it about whether he becomes a better man. It is a movie about a bad cop forced to accept his own fate, to recognize that all the bitterness he's spewed into the world has left him empty inside. The moral decay of an individual usually makes for compelling, albeit dark, viewing. Effectively written, directed, and acted, Rampart is a grimly fascinating portrait of a guy who swore to uphold the law, but ended up staring into the abyss that is himself.
( 1/2 out of four)
Rampart is rated R for pervasive language, sexual content and some violence. The running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes.
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