In the opening scene of Rampart, we see LAPD officer Dave Brown behaving rather typically for a character in a corrupt cop movie. If the genre feels like it’s been overdone, and not necessarily done very memorably since the Sidney Lumet films of the ’70s and ’80s, that’s probably because it has. Fortunately, much changes over the course of the next 108 minutes and, with Rampart, so does that trend.
Brown (Woody Harrelson) exchanges some racial slurs with a fellow officer and treats a female rookie cop like, well, you’d expect him to, forcing her to eat her french fries even though she claims to have a cholesterol problem. Among many other things, Brown hates wasting food.
Brown also treats sex in a very matter-of-fact way. The mothers of his two daughters are sisters, played by Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche. The younger daughter wonders if she and her sister are inbred. Brown explains they’re both half-sisters and first cousins, but completely healthy and legal.
At first there seems to be no animosity between Brown and either of the sisters, nor between the sisters themselves. They live together and share dinner as the strangest family of five that somehow believes they’re normal. After sitting in for a dinner he doesn’t eat – his diet is largely comprised of alcohol – Brown asks one of the sisters to sleep with him tonight. She says no. Unfazed, he moves over to the other end of the table and asks the other sister to cuddle. The man has no shame.
Brown’s life comes crashing down when a video surfaces of him relentlessly beating a Hispanic suspect. He believes he was set up by another member of the department who wants to use him as public scapegoat for the bigger Rampart scandal facing the LAPD in the late 1990s, where more than 70 officers were implicated in some sort of misconduct. But Brown is the focus of this story, and a department lawyer (Sigourney Weaver) and the town’s mayor (Steve Buscemi) are breathing down his neck to give a public statement.
Brown doesn’t believe he has done anything wrong, calling himself a “soldier,” cleaning up the streets of Los Angeles. He earned the nickname “Date Rape” Dave several years ago after killing a serial date rapist and maintains to this day that all of the men he’s beaten are similarly bad men. A tall blonde at the bar played by Robin Wright is attracted to his story for some reason. She provides a rather tumultuous safe haven for Brown once the sisters finally kick him to the curb.
We aren’t sure why Brown is like this. We know he served in Vietnam and that his father was also a cop, probably in times when this sort of behavior was more the norm. He’s broke and drunk, but he isn’t dirty for the financial benefits. His teenage daughter calls him a racist, a womanizer, a bigot. “I’m not racist or sexist – I hate everyone,” Brown tells the internal affairs officer (Ice Cube) who seems to have enough evidence of Browns indiscretions to take him out of uniform and put him behind bars.
Through it all, Brown remains intent on keeping the family together. It takes a masterful actor like Harrelson to make you feel for this character. Harrelson is naturally thin, but especially jaunt here in accordance with his character’s poor diet (he reportedly took pointers from Christian Bale), yet still incredibly intimidating. Writer/director Oren Moverman and co-writer James Ellroy, a pulp-crime veteran whose credits include L.A. Confidential and Dark Blue, make the careful choice of never showing Brown put his hands on a woman. We know he loves his daughters and the younger one seems to be the only person naive enough to still see him in any sort of positive light. It hurts to watch him lose this.
The further Brown’s life slips away, the more intimate Moverman gets with his camera, ultimately to an uncomfortable level. The film’s climax takes us into the pits of Hell, namely a scarlet-lit techno bondage sex club. It’s as disorienting a sequence as I can recall, with several multi-second passages of visual blackout and audio feedback.
Moverman’s previous film was The Messenger, where Harrelson and Ben Foster, who briefly appears in Rampart as a homeless war vet in a wheelchair, portray Army officers with the unenviable job of informing the next of kin that a soldier has been killed. Tiny indie distributor Oscilloscope Laboratories put together a grass roots campaign that, in just their second year of operations, managed to get Harrelson an Oscar nomination.
Millennium Entertainment, the studio responsible for Rampart, David Schwimmer’s solid-but-ignored Trust and the Nicole Kidman/Nicolas Cage-fueled disaster Trespass has shown no sign of consistency or competency in their brief existence. And it’s a shame because Harrelson’s heartbreaking performance is the year’s best.