Movie Review: Rampart

Woody Harrelson as Dave Brown in "Rampart"

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

Why does filmmaker Oren Moverman take such pains to obscure the screen with artsy, albeit indeterminate, visuals? Maybe because on the road to this nihilistic voyage to nowhere … there’s ultimately very little to see.

Nodding to the late 1990′s corrupt cop scandal that took place within the LAPD’s gritty Rampart Division (which comprises the area west and northwest of downtown Los Angeles), Rampart goes a step further, introducing a police officer so nasty, so unredeemable, that he makes the real cops look Keystone by comparison.

Self-destructive, choosing to intake nicotine instead of calories, and frequently breaking into a sardonic grin that threatens to split his flushed, raw-boned face in two, Woody Harrelson preternaturally inhabits the bad cop/bad cop character of Dave “Date Rape” Brown. (This nickname is as vague as many other aspects of the story; in this instance, Dave isn’t the Date Rapist but rather, the alleged murderer of said criminal.) While it’s a surprise to most that Dave is still on active duty – even though his superiors keep suggesting that he retire – he works under a constant cloud of suspicion … not just for misconduct in the past, but for egregious acts that he commits on a fairly frequent basis. When Dave is subsequently caught on tape, beating a man within an inch of his life because the man plowed into his patrol car, Dave adopts a pose of outrage, claiming that he’s the victim, that he was assaulted with a deadly weapon (the man’s car), and that he was merely defending himself.

The film opens on an extreme close-up of Dave, cruising in his patrol car as day turns into night turns into day turns into night. Rampart gives us a never-ending tour of L.A.’s mean streets, circa 1999, the hawk-like Dave either looking for trouble or, if not, intent on making some of his own. He claims he’s not a racist, since he hates all people. Within minutes, we see him forcing a female rookie cop to choke down some French fries that she clearly doesn’t want to eat, following by his breaking up a young gang of boys as he drives straight toward the center of the group, using his car as if it were a bowling ball intent on mowing down as many pins as possible.

Co-writer James Ellroy has examined the City of the Angels’ police corruption before, in such celebrated novels as The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential. Perhaps because he wears the mantle of the novelist much easier than that of the screenwriter, the script subsequently suffers. But that doesn’t excuse the contributions from screenwriter Oren Moverman who, aside from writing and directing the brilliant film The Messenger, also received writing credit for Married Life and I’m Not There.

Robin Wright and Woody Harrelson in "Rampart"

Whatever the reasons, Rampart is nothing more than an showy cinematographic exercise that depicts an anti-hero who resolutely won’t change. Does the film undergo any kind of story arc? Nope. Even more confounding, the film is littered with characters who are never explored. Robin Wright’s Linda, an attorney/sometime love interest, cries as Dave mentions the Date Rape guy. Why? Is there some nefarious connection? Dave marries one woman before marrying her sister, each bearing him a daughter. The quintet live together in adjoining houses. How did this happen? Are they Mormons? What about the first daughter, now a scowling teen (Brie Larson)? Is she even slightly annoyed that her daddy left her mommy in order to marry her aunt? And what about Dave himself? His language skills are dizzyingly impressive, yet from what we can glean, he’s the son of a dumb cop. After an initial stint in the army, Dave joined the police force as well, following in his dad’s footsteps. What element in his background caused him to become so literate?

Additionally, there are hints that “someone upstairs” at the precinct is protecting him. Conversely, there are hints that “someone upstairs” has it out for him. Which is it?

Give me a Training Day any day. Or a Bad Lieutenant. Notwithstanding Harrelson’s robust commitment to this character … we still yearn for a story that’s even slightly arresting.

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Rating on a scale of 5 dirty secrets: 2.5

Release date: February 10, 2012 (ltd, NY/LA; wider release through March)
Directed by: Oren Moverman
Screenplay by: James Ellroy and Oren Moverman
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Ned Beatty, Ben Foster, Anne Heche, Ice Cube, Cynthia Nixon, Sigourney Weaver, Robin Wright,Steve Buscemi
Rating: R
Running Time: 108 minutes

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 450+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/kimberly-gadette/). Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.

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