Woody Harrelson as David Douglas Brown
Sigourney Weaver as Joan Confrey
Robin Wright as Linda Fentress
Cynthia Nixon as Barbara
Anne Heche as Catherine
Ned Beatty as Hartshorn
Ben Foster as General Terry
Ice Cube as Kyle Timkins
Leonard Kelly-Young as Cal Woodward
Jon Bernthal as Dan Morone
Stella Schnabel as Jane
Jon Foster as Michael Whittaker
Brie Larson as Helen
Sammy Boyarsky as Margaret
Billy Hough as Piano Player
Audra McDonald as Sarah
Keith Woulard as Shondell Parmallee
Steve Buscemi as Bill Blago
Harriet Sansom Harris as Stacy Cranston
Francis Capra as Seize Chasco
Directed by Oren Moverman
It’s 1999, and Los Angeles police officer Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) has been under investigation for the mysterious death of a colleague, and while his domestic life continues to be complicated, he is caught on camera beating a fleeing suspect that gets him suspended from the force and raises more questions about his earlier deeds.
(Note: This review is loosely adapted from an earlier review done for the Toronto International Film Festival.)
Tackling a police drama for his follow-up to “The Messenger” feels somewhat safe for filmmaker Oren Moverman because it’s a genre that has been tackled many times before.
Fortunately, he has a terrific collaborator in co-writer James Ellroy, considered by many to be the foremost expert on the L.A. crime, which is one of the reasons “Rampart” offers something beyond other bad cop movies that have come before, whether we’re talking about Werner Herzog’s “Bad Lieutenant” movie, Denzel Washington’s “Training Day” or even Joe Carnahan’s “Narc.” The other important difference is Moverman’s choice in leading men with Woody Harrelson playing what’s being hailed as “the most corrupt cop you’ve ever seen on screen.”
Clearly, why men who choose to join the police force decide to start breaking the law is an interesting topic, but “Rampart” has less of a running narrative than many of its predecessors, taking more of a fly-on-the-wall approach to the material and a shooting style more likely to be seen in arthouses than in cineplexes.
Regardless of its potential audience, Moverman has created another great vehicle for Woody Harrelson who is shockingly likeable as racist and sexist cop Dave Brown, who has been accused of killing a colleague, although the crime was never pinned on him. Dave’s homelife has him living with his ex-wives, who happen to be sisters, played by Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon, as well as a daughter from each. Dave also regularly picks up women in bars for one-night stands, because on top of everything else, Dave has a sex addiction. When Dave is caught on video beating a suspect senseless, he’s suspended from the force, leaving him pondering his career decisions, but then an opportunity arises when one of the women he picks up at his local bar happens to be a defense lawyer played by Robin Wright, who knows something about his case.
What’s most surprising about “Rampart”–named after the L.A. precinct where Brown works, one that’s previously been steeped in controversy–is that police dramas tend to be extremely macho affairs. With so many women surrounding Dave, the movie spends a good deal of time exploring his relationships with them, whether it’s the sexier scenes with Wright, the powerful dramatic moments with his rebellious older daughter, played by Brie Larson, or confronting Sigourney Weaver as the woman investigating his case.
In fact, the majority of “Rampart” is made up of scenes of Harrelson interacting with those around him, and it’s not just women. Ben Foster, the other star of Moverman’s “The Messenger,” is barely recognizable the first time we see him as a homeless man known as “The General,” who Dave suspects may have seen him commit a major crime, while Ned Beatty proves he’s still in fine form as actor playing his informer and friend.
As terrific as the script and the overall performances are, Moverman makes a lot of odd choices in terms of camera angles, sometimes going for extreme close-ups, sometimes shooting from a distance in order to give the film a very distinctive look. There’s also a jarring scene in an underground sex club that really shakes up the fairly slow pace.
By the third act, nothing is going as Dave planned as his earlier actions have started to catch up with him in the form of an Internal Affairs detective played by Ice Cube. All of this builds to a somewhat ambiguous ending, which is very likely to split audiences, because there isn’t a definitive resolution and you’re left unsure whether Dave might indeed repent or if he’ll just continue doing what he does until he’s caught or (more likely) killed. The abrupt ending also makes it obvious that the film feels too short, because it feels as if a few of the relationships are glossed over or not really resolved in a satisfying way compared to others.
The Bottom Line:
“Rampart” is a powerful second film from Oren Moverman, one that could possibly find itself an audience beyond the arthouse crowd among more discerning moviegoers who like good police dramas. More than anything else, it’s Harrelson’s distinctive portrayal of a dirty cop that separates this from other similar movies.