Harrelson's rogue cop is on the hunt for a plot
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Feb. 24, 2012
Woody Harrelson brings the heat in "Rampart," a nasty L.A.- noir character study.
The problem is that writer and director Oren Moverman ("The Messenger") and co-screenwriter James Ellroy don't bring much light to Dave Brown, the corrupt Los Angeles cop Harrelson channels with such toxic intensity. Brown is a bitter, tiresomely self-destructive Johnny One-Note, so busy wallowing in his own racism, misogyny and substance abuse that he can barely make time for his equally passionate commitment to self-pity.
In fact Dave - whose peers jokingly call him "Date Rape," in honor of his killing a serial rapist - is such a wearyingly contemptuous and contemptible character that it's difficult to explain why viewers would want to spend more than a minute with him. That "Rampart" is watchable at all is due to Harrelson, who appears in every scene and compels attention like a human billy club, his hateful arias and bladelike physicality reminiscent of Travis Bickle at his most passionate and self-deceiving.
Moverman and Ellroy throw in lots of colorful supporting characters and provocative plot twists and turns - including a videotaped instance of brutality that recalls the Rodney King scandal - but "Rampart" doesn't tell a coherent story as much as swirl the drain with Dave, as his increasingly desperate efforts to save himself simply result in a cascade of self-inflicted wounds.
Some of the folks Dave crosses paths with are a sexually needy lawyer played by a Robin Wright (incandescent as usual), and two ex-wives - who happen to be sisters - with whom he still lives, along with their daughters. (The long-suffering exes are played with unflappable steadiness by Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche.) That domestic setup - wherein he regularly, pathetically begs one of the women to sleep with him - exemplifies the contradictions that bedevil "Rampart" which, when it's not pretending to disapprove of Dave's most politically incorrect excesses, plays like a male wish fulfillment fantasy at its most tawdry and subtly valorizing.
The title of "Rampart" refers to the embattled LAPD division Dave works in, which was subject to a real-life case of systemic corruption in the 1990s, when the film is set. Presumably, Moverman and Ellroy created Dave as the posturing, borderline-pathological embodiment of the outfit's worst pseudo-macho excesses. But despite the story's roots in specifics, "Rampart" winds up hewing to rogue-cop cliches that might have seemed bold in "Dirty Harry" but threatened to outgrow their welcome after Nicolas Cage resurrected "Bad Lieutenant."
It's interesting that "Rampart" is coming out at the same moment lawyer Connie Rice is promoting a memoir recalling her own efforts to hold L.A.'s gangs, politicians and police department accountable during the Rampart era. She's a character ripe for big-screen hero worship, but for now, the story we keep telling ourselves - and the one inspiring performances as astonishing as Harrelson's - is Date Rape Brown's.
Contains pervasive profanity, sexual content and some violence.