Films about corrupt policemen are almost always going to be compared to a striking 1992 film by Abel Ferrara called Bad Lieutenant, which stars Harvey Keitel in one of the landmark performances of his storied career. In it, he portrays a cop who’s gone beyond “off the deep end”; he’s a crack-smoking, drug-dealing gambler whose family life harshly contradicts that of the one he lives behind his badge. In Rampart, Woody Harrelson steps into a Keitel-like role with sly, snakelike aplomb as he carries the entire movie on his shoulders. People will call it his greatest role since Mickey Knox in Natural Born Killers; they’d be right, as Harrelson is great in this film. The rest of it… well, there’s the rub.
If i’s possible to have a film with absolutely no redeeming characters whatsoever, Rampart is a crowning example of this, eschewing anything at all positive and focusing mostly on the exaggerated behavior that everyone seems to exhibit. Set in 1999, Harrelson plays Los Angeles Police Department officer David “Date Rape” Brown, whose egocentric personality and questionable track record have made him a sort-of legend on the force. However, that combination seems to be the perfect foil for the LAPD brass, all of whom are in the middle of dealing with the infamous Rampart corruption scandal. When Brown is mysteriously videotaped beating a man nearly to death after a car wreck, the media focus shifts from the Rampart goings-on to Brown, effectively throwing heat off the department and making one man into a public scapegoat.
David Brown is written as a near-insufferable know-it-all; he spends most of the film seeming like a Neanderthal, yet he possesses a shockingly deep knowledge of the law and its workings. He can worm his way out of any departmental psychological exam, answer any question put to him by his superiors, and stage crime scene evidence to his benefit. However, he can’t seem to hold his family or his relationships together to save his life, and really – what’s the point? It’s Brown’s world, and everyone else is just visiting. The only people he genuinely cares about seem to be his daughters, and even they don’t want to have much to do with him. He’s viewed as despicable scum by everyone except himself, and he doesn’t seem to get that his outdated worldview can’t possibly exist in a forward-thinking society.
Director Oren Moverman tries his best to create a gritty character drama, but only succeeds in showing the worst that life has to offer with no possible light at the end of the tunnel. Basically, Rampart is a 108-minute examination of a man’s downward spiral, as he makes maddeningly annoying choices – choices that are given him which he can do nothing but accept, because he cannot afford to let his pride or his ego down. And when it all goes wrong, we can’t do anything but simply watch and loathe. And yes, I haven’t mentioned the stellar supporting cast, the likes of which include Sigourney Weaver, Steve Buscemi, Anne Heche, Ice Cube, Cynthia Nixon, Robin Wright, Ben Foster, and other terrific actors who are essentially relegated to cameo roles. This is Harrelson’s movie through and through, appearing in every scene and every setup. We don’t get to see the inner workings of the potential conspiracy against him; as this movie is 99.4% told in his first-person view, we’re just forced to be the parrot on his shoulder, observing the wreck his life is fast becoming.
With its low-key style and a flairless look at the life of a disgraced man (or is he just a disgrace?), Rampart isn’t a classic of extreme cinema, but more of an exercise in restraint and playing it cool. The typical extravagant showmanship associated with stories like this are absent here; instead, it’s more of a cinéma vérité look at a man on the verge of losing everything he holds dear and what he’ll do to hang onto it all. However, it won’t stay in your mind much longer than it’ll take you to leave the theater and get a milkshake.
FINAL GRADE: B-
Reel Film News Movie Review by Eddie Pasa