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Rampart (2011)

| November 25, 2011 | 0 Comments

I think Woody Harrelson may be the one working actor right now who looks like he could really be a cop. There’s a bulldog quality about his nature that seems convincing enough to make you believe that he might be able to fill a blue uniform and bust some heads. He’s one of our best and most interesting actors, who has always turned in fine work. Now, in director Orin Moverman, I think he has found a director who really knows how to use him to his full potential.

Rampart is director Orin Moverman’s follow-up to his 2009 drama The Messenger, about the lives of two of the U.S. Army’s Casualty Notification Officers – one of whom was played by Harrelson. Both films are about men who are challenged with a job that is, at heart, thankless. Here, working with a screenplay co-written by James Ellroy, I think he may have found a profession even more thankless than a CNO, after all, what could be more thankless than being an L.A. Cop in the late 90s?


Harrelson is Dave Brown, a corrupt cop who, both in his private and professional life, is his own worst enemy. He drinks too much, smokes too much and is assigned to the worst possible district: L.A.’s scandal-ridden Rampart division, where corrupt cops were once buddy-buddy with drug dealers and illegal aliens. Dave is a remnant of that old system, and his behavior doesn’t indicate that he was innocent of any charges. His personality tells us what we need to know; he’s a bully in uniform who breaks the rules almost as an afterthought. As the movie opens, he bullies a new female officer into eating fries even though she has a problem with cholesterol. The point is to help us understand his uncaring nature, and to illustrate how easy it is for him to manipulate those around him.


All around the corners of Dave’s life are the fractured remains of his thoughtless nature. On the job, he has become infamous for his conduct unbecoming a police officer. Some years ago, he murdered an alleged serial date rapist and it made him so infamous that he earned the nickname “Date Rape Dave”. He was reprimanded but curiously not punished. His conduct on the job has destroyed his reputation, and his latest exploit, in which he was caught on tape beating a suspect who rammed his car and then fled, doesn’t exactly prove that he has changed.


At home, circumstances are even more bizarre. He is the father of two girls who were mothered by two sisters in a situation that even even the kids don’t really understand. He treats women like tissue, using them and then throwing them away. Most especially a lawyer (Robin Wright) that he develops a sexual relationship with. Dave’s two kids prove to be the only positive thing in Dave’s life. He is, on the surface, a good father and at heart he really does love them.


The girls are the only people that Dave doesn’t regard with verbal assault. He is a sexist and a racist, copping off shocking interludes to blacks, Hispanics, women, you name it. He freely admits that he doesn’t discriminate, he just hates everybody. There’s a certain smart-ass smile that he employs when having to answer for his past transgressions. To an attorney working on the beating case, he stubbornly maintains his innocence, and to an internal affairs agent (Ice Cube) investigating a robbery/homicide, he refuses to answer for some facts that don’t quite add up (Dave committed a murder and stole the money).

Dave Brown might remind some of Harvey Keitel in Able Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, another story of a cop gone bad, who uses his job to feed his appetites. Dave isn’t quite as pathetic or rock-bottom as the lieutenant, but he is just as screwed up, working in the only profession that could feed his immoral nature. What we are experiencing here is the downfall of a man who has spent a lifetime wallowing in immorality and now is forced to confront the evil things that he has done.

What works here is Woody Harrelson’s wonderful performance. He plays a man devoid of a moral constitution but who is not a stereotypically evil man. Yes, he does horrible things, but he is not without some measure of a soul. We can see that in his eyes, especially the later scene in which he tries to patch up the relationship with his girls. Harrelson reaches notes in this performance that lesser actors wouldn’t touch. He isn’t afraid to look like a jerk, and that quality makes the performance.

It sounds strange to say, but I am glad that that movie is thin on plot. The power of the movie comes from Harrelson’s performance because the screenwriter is wise enough to get the plot out of his way. The ending sees a little unfinished, but then again so does he. This is a study of a character, not a phony mechanical plot that winds up and moves in predictable directions. This is the story of a diseased man, who is corrupt from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet, but not a man who is so corrupt that he lacks any kind of a soul. This is the best work Woody Harrelson has ever done.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2011) View IMDB Filed in: Action, Drama