Friday, March 23, 2012

Review: Rampart

Rampart (2011)
Directed by: Oren Moverman
Written by: James Ellroy and James Ellroy
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Ice Cube, Sigourney Weaver, Steve Buscemi

Rampart marks Woody Harrelson's second collaboration with writer/director Oren Moverman, after 2009's The Messenger. The first go-round resulted in Oscar nominations for both (Supporting Actor for Harrelson, Original Screenplay for Moverman). This time, Harrelson and Moverman change uniforms -- instead of the Army, they explore the 1990s LAPD corruption scandal (with the help of L.A. milieu king James Ellroy, cowriter). While Rampart is not as successful -- it is a more uneven, less affecting ride as a whole -- it is also a vehicle for what is possibly Harrelson's finest performance to date. As LAPD (and Vietnam) veteran "Date Rape" Dave Brown, Harrelson is coolly evil, a self-aware sociopath in navy and Aviators.

Appearing in every scene -- indeed, nearly every frame -- Harrelson needs to be magnetic, and is. There is a certain manic glee to his performance, even as he spouts racist and misogynist vitriol -- Harrelson's irrepressible charm tempers Brown's acute misanthropy. There is also a certain frightening intelligence to Brown -- some of the film's most harrowing scenes don't take place in dark Los Angeles alleys or seedy sex clubs (although the film does go both places), but in LAPD conference rooms. Brown drops SAT words and legal jargon just as easily -- and just as convincingly -- as he does four-letter words and epithets. The scariest thing about Dave Brown -- and all cops, really, as the generic name seems to suggest -- is that he knows he can get away with anything if he hides behind the right precedent or procedure.

And Brown gets away with a lot. All the corrupt cop clichés are here -- drinking on the job, doing drugs, beating down (and worse) anyone unfortunate enough to get in his way. This might have well been called Bad Lieutenant: Los Angeles. No, Rampart does not break any new ground in the corrupt cop genre, but it walks a fine line that not many other entries in the genre have. Rampart neither completely demonizes nor completely humanizes Dave Brown. The film neither endorses nor condemns him. He uses his back story about killing a serial date rapist to get laid at a bar. He guns down a robbery victim only to give some of the money to the robber (before taking the rest for himself). Dave Brown may be a violent, racist sociopath, yes, but he's a violent, racist sociopath with a heart of... well, let's just say he has a heart. Probably.

This is evidenced by the scenes with his family. As an example of the film's unevenness, Brown lives with his two ex-wives, as well as one daughter from each -- one a nascent teenage lesbian, the other not yet old enough to hate him. The pseudo-polygamy is never explained, nor does it seem particularly important. Regardless, Harrelson gives Brown something approaching vulnerability when around his family. When soundly harangued by the younger of his ex-wives, he walks away, wordlessly and expressionlessly, but obviously devastated. You almost feel sorry for him until you remember everything she said was true. A later scene with his daughters is equally heartbreaking -- not for Brown, but for the daughter that finally realizes she should -- and does -- hate her father. And the father knows it. With such a wide range of emotional tones, Dave Brown is a meaty part, and Harrelson sets into it with fervor.

Rampart is basically a one-man show, and good thing, because most of the supporting performances fall flat. Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche are one-note shrews as Brown's exes, a ragged-looking Robin Wright never seems to fit into the bigger picture as a lawyer who sleeps with Brown, Steve Buscemi is wasted as an LAPD bureaucrat, and Ice Cube is rote as the Internal Affairs officer on Brown's tail (who curiously doesn't show up until the third act). Better are Brie Larson as Brown's conflicted older daughter and Sigourney Weaver, who holds her own going tête-à-tête with Brown, as his superior. Messenger star Ben Foster makes a cameo appearance as a mentally disturbed vet/vagrant as well. All are just butterflies in Brown's hurricane, however.

Nevertheless, Harrelson's performance is strong enough to elevate some of the more trying scenes to respectability. Where the film is at its weakest is in its technical aspects. While Ellroy's script is explosive and moving at times, Moverman's direction fails to reign in its tendencies to spiral into arbitrary tangents (the dueling ex-wives, the sex club) and lurching to uninteresting places (Ned Beatty's doddering gangster and pal of Brown's father). Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski's L.A. is washed out and lifeless (this ain't Michael Mann's L.A.), and the camera moves when it should stay and stays when it should move far too often. There was a time when Harrelson was tabbed as a dark horse Best Actor nominee (interesting that the fifth nomination went to another performance from an L.A. movie -- Demián Bichir in A Better Life). He obviously didn't get the nomination, although you can easily make the case that the blame lies elsewhere. This is Harrelson's show, yes, but he doesn't have a whole lot of help.

Rating: ***1/2 (out of five)

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