Cop movies are always interesting to me. The power, how you use it, and what it does to you as a person are deep subjects. Still, it seems more interesting films are made about the other side of crime, the criminal. Cops get relegated to the role of foils, or even buffoons. Rampart, the second collaboration between actor Woody Harrelson and writer/director Oren Moverman (after The Messenger), puts a cop front and center.
Rampart takes place in the Los Angeles Police Department in the late '90s, around the time of the scandals that the "Rampart Division" infamous, but doesn’t actually deal with the scandals directly. “Date Rape” Dave Brown (Harrelson), a chain-smoking, corrupt, Vietnam-vet officer cruises through the division with an “us versus them” mentality to the nth degree. He’s always right, and the gang-bangers, criminals, bums (personified by the excellent Ben Foster), and citizens are wrong, regardless. Brown, who got the nickname for allegedly murdering a suspected date rapist, is knee deep in the ends-justify-any-and-all-means culture of the LAPD in that era.
Of course, the times, they are a’ changin’, and when Brown is caught on videotape beating and kicking a “motorist” who slammed into Brown’s police cruiser and tried to run away, he ends up becoming a problem for the already scandal-plagued division. The D.A. (Steve Buscemi), his assistant (Sigourney Weaver), and the LAPD brass would like him to go the hell away. Dave, however, isn’t a quitter. He isn’t racist, he “hates everyone equally,” and he is well spoken and unapologetic on whatever he does to get the job done. He needs money, though, to pay his lawyers, and his old mentor (Ned Beatty) suggests knocking over a card game. Clearly something they’ve both been involved with before, Brown gives it a go and that results in more bad press and sharp, persistent investigation by an internal affairs officer played by Ice Cube.
Dave’s years of bad behavior are coming back to get him. Professionally, of course, but also personally. He was two ex-wives (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon) who live next door to each other, and are sisters to boot! Each has one of Dave’s daughters, with the older (Brie Larson) pissed at him for how his professional life has wreaked havoc with her mom, aunt, and cousin/sister, and the other (Sammy Boyarsky) still idolizing him but soon to be disabused of that feeling. Dave’s life is crashing down and his family is trying to push him out so he doesn’t pull them down too.
Brown’s descent is not an easy thing to watch, and Harrelson goes all out in the role. That’s amplified by the saturated, hand-held, documentary feel that director/co-writer Oren Moverman adopts. Not just jittery camera work, but a real gritty feel that seems to echo the chaos inside Dave’s soul. The script, co-written by novelist James Ellroy, is harsh and realistic, but there appear to be slices missing. Dave’s problems unleash a paranoia about being set up, and that is teased at, but there are so many things about that not resolved or even brought up that you aren’t sure if Dave has reason to be paranoid or he’s just going nuts. This comes out mostly in Dave’s relationships with Beatty’s character and an attorney he meets in a bar (Robin Wright).
Despite the excellent performance by Harrelson, who is in every single scene, Rampart seems to be missing a couple of parts and is a little too hard to watch at times to be a fully satisfying film. Also, a lot of threads are moving and they don’t all tie up very nicely at the end. “Date Rape” Dave Brown is a great character and Harrelson plays him perfectly and that’s enough of a reason to see the film, but it isn’t the great cop film it aspires to be.
Rampart is a good film to see on Blu-ray. It has an intriguing look, shot with the “Alexa” camera, which uses light, contrast, and position to the fullest. This all looks stunning in HD, and missing it by getting the DVD is a real mistake. The sound is also excellent, although I finally had to use the subtitles, since there is a lot of mumbly dialogue that is hard to catch. This is a very realistic-looking and sounding movie, not so much from Hollywood lighting tricks, but rather unusual lights and sounds that benefit from the Blu-ray presentation.
Another benefit of the Blu-ray is the great commentary by co-writer/director Oren Moverman and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski...although those both sound like fake names to me. They provide an informative if low-key commentary dealing both with plot points and technical details. It’s not too technical, which is good, but Bukowski gives background on some of the more stimulating shots, while Moverman provides all sorts of insights.
It’s a good thing that the commentary is worthwhile, since the rest of the “extras” are pretty limited. In fact, they consist one 30-minute featurette titled “Featurette.” I like the minimalist approach in the name. The featurette itself is pretty standard, with interviews and comments about the movie, characters, script, locations, etc. Can’t say it provides any real insight but it’s not any better or worse than any other of its ilk.
A pretty good movie with a pretty good HD presentation will have to be enough for this disc. Since the movie itself is good but not great, Rampart is an iffy recommendation overall. Make sure you want to see a man bringing about his own overdue downfall before you wade into this one.