A film review by Craig J. Koban March 14, 2012


2012, R, 112 mins.


Dave Brown: Woody Harrelson / Joan Confrey: Sigourney Weaver / Barbara: Cynthia Nixon / Catherine: Anne Heche / Linda Fentress: Robin Wright / Kyle Timkins: Ice Cube

Directed by Oren Moverman / Written by James Ellroy and Moverman

RAMPART, Oren Moverman’s second feature film as a director, tells a tale of a corrupt cop running morally amok that rings with so many familiar stock elements of countless other corrupt cop thrillers that they hold the film back from achieving masterful status.  The underlining story, co-written by Moverman and James Ellroy (who penned L.A. CONFIDENTIAL) traverses many crooked police officer film conventions to the point of obvious cliché: the cop that’s a racist, the cop that’s a hard drinker and pill popper, the cop that’s in trouble with Internal Affairs, the cop that uses ethically questionable methods, the cop that’s estranged from his wife and kids…and so on. 

Yet, Moverman’s film is saved largely by two elements: Firstly, he paints a portrait of summertime Los Angeles that’s dripping with more nihilistic atmosphere and a throbbing sense of impending dread than most other genre films like it (some have intriguingly referred to RAMPART as “sun-drenched-noir”, which seems highly fitting).  Secondly, and most decisively, RAMPART is always on secure footing with the presence of Woody Harrelson at the helm, giving a volcanic, dazzling, and vanity free performance that’s perhaps as distressing as any he has ever given.  He has immersed himself in past roles with a gusto and confidence, to be sure, but in RAMPART he seems to be channeling deeper and more harrowingly into the damaged psyche of his character.  If you still have not shaken the memory of Harrelson playing a loveable dimwit country bumpkin on TV’s CHEERS than this film should change your prerogative. 

The story takes place during the midst of the fallout of the Rampart Scandal of the late 1990’s, during which 70 officers from a special unit of the L.A.P.D. were brought up on some form of misconduct, much to the public’s dismay.  It’s 1999 and Harrelson plays Dave “Date Rape” Brown, a former Vietnam War veteran turned cop that has his nickname due to the fact that he allegedly murdered a serial date rapist years ago.  This might have something to do with the fact that he has two daughters of his own, despite coming from two separate wives who happen to be sisters to one another (played respectively by Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon).  He mostly has an estranged relationship with his daughters, but he nonetheless tries to maintain the role of a father to them, even though his two exes would rather him not be around at all. 

Brown is, by all definitions, a dirty cop.  He is a toxic racist, is verbally and physically aggressive with suspects, uses borderline vigilante violence, and often has no problem whatsoever with beating or shooting suspects when he deems it necessary.  When he’s not on the streets like a hungry predatory animal looking for trouble, he gorges on alcohol, drugs, and sex clubs to help wash away the guilt (he always seems to be drinking martinis, but never seems to seriously get drunk).  He’s also a chronic misogynist to boot, treating anonymous women more as his nightly sexual playthings than as human beings to have meaningful relationships with.  In short, Brown is a ticking-time bomb of an unhinged social and public monster. 



One day while out on patrol his squad car is hit by another citizen’s, but when the enraged Brown gets out to confront the perpetrator, the suspect gets physical with Brown and flees the scene.  After a very brief foot pursuit Brown catches up with the man and proceeds to pummel him into bloody submission.  Unfortunately, he does this in broad daylight and his actions are captured on camera and the footage makes all the local news outlets.  Considering the times of the Rampart Scandal (and the Rodney King beatings just a few years earlier), Brown’s questionable use of excessive force gets too much departmental attention.  Not only does Brown have the assistant D.A. all over him (played well by Sigourney Weaver), but he eventually comes under the fire of a hard-hitting Internal Affairs officer (Ice Cube) that would like nothing more than to put a bigoted and dangerous cop away for good.  Brown’s family begins to turn on him, as do his fellow officers (even his former ex-corrupt-cop mentor of his of sorts – played by Ned Beatty – begins to question his relationship with him), which leaves Brown all alone in the world facing career and personal meltdown.  

Again, it’s the gritty and depraved atmosphere that Moverman and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski drums up in RAMPART that allows it to unsettlingly simmer with hypnotic a pull on viewers.  This is not the picturesque and glamorized “City of Angels”, but rather a scorchingly hot and soul crushing cesspool of corruption that seems to just feed Brown’s unhealthy fixations.  Even though RAMPART hits many preordained narrative beats for its genre, the film elevates itself beyond that fault by envisioning a city around Brown that seems more inhospitably bitter, cruel, and grungy than most other similar films would offer.  The screen is caked with burnt out warm hues and close ups that focus in on the character’s sweat and misery; you feel like you there with him. 

RAMPART marks the second time that Harrelson has worked with Moverman (he gave an Oscar-nominated performance in THE MESSENGER playing a U.S. Army casualty notification officer) and they seem to be developing a solid actor-director chemistry that is paying huge dividends.  This is an older, more grizzled, more gaunt, and volatile looking Harrelson than we are normally accustomed to (he apparently lost 25 pounds of muscle to plausibly place himself within the semi-emaciated frame of his self-abusing character).  Brown looks like a sickly animal because he is one; he cares for no one around him but himself and his own deeply selfish needs (even when he tries to have a relationship with lonely defense attorney – played exceptionally by Robin Wright – he seems to just pathetically use her as he does his other female targets) and seems to have an unhealthily symbiotic attachment with dishonesty and scandal.  Even when Brown thinks he wants to get “better”, per se, he really can’t: he seems incapable of changing his ways and ending his always-evolving series of lies, double-crossings, and overtly criminal behavior.  Harrelson’s disturbing magnetism and, at times, venomous charm carries this film through and through.

Beyond its stock traits, perhaps the other dilemma with RAMPART is that its screenplay seems to meander aimlessly at times from one unrelated vignette to the next and culminates in a conclusion that does little to satisfy audience needs, especially for the massive amount of setup that built up to it.  However, there is no denying RAMPART’s power as downtrodden character study that hones in on the microcosm of a monumentally wicked soul that’s in freefall with no hope in sight.   RAMPART is a tough film to sit through - kind of akin to SHAME - for the way that it audaciously invites you into the intimate and unflinchingly squalid details of its tormented main character.  I wanted to rush home and take a shower to wash the stench RAMPART off of me, but that’s to the film’s disquieting credit.  It’s a fairly formulaic cop-gone-bad story that manages to hauntingly get under your skin, unlike so many other similar films.

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