Millennium Entertainment // 2011 // 107 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // April 30th, 2012
The most corrupt cop you've ever seen on screen.
"I don't cheat on my taxes. You can't cheat on something you've never committed to."
The year is 1999, and the place is Los Angeles. Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson, Natural Born Killers) is one of the most unsavory members of the L.A.P.D., a racist, sexist brute who is nonetheless well-regarded for his ability to get the job done. Alas, Dave's life takes a sharp turning point when video footage is released that shows Dave nearly beating a suspect to death. Suddenly, problems begin to crop up on both a personal and professional level. Can Dave find a way to survive the forthcoming onslaught of scrutiny and judgment?
At a first glance, Oren Moverman's Rampart may look familiar. It's yet another bad-cop saga in the vein of Bad Lieutenant, a detailed and unflinching dissection of how a corrupt member of law enforcement reacts when he's placed under the microscope. Yes, we've covered this territory before, but Moverman and star Woody Harrelson (working from a script co-written by the great James Ellroy) manage to unearth some uniquely compelling material. The film is too messy to achieve greatness, but there are numerous unforgettable moments along the way to the bleak finish line.
Some bad-cop movies play like variations on the old gangster films of the 1930s -- we get 90 minutes of entertainingly horrible behavior, then a few minutes of obligatory comeuppance. Rampart only permits Brown a few fleeting moments of gleeful wickedness (observe him cackling as he attempts to hit illegal immigrants with his police car) before it brings the hammer down and forces him to start squirming. In some ways, Brown is a typical noir protagonist, desperately attempting to find a way out before it's too late. You might imagine that it would be difficult to care about the fate of a scumbag like Brown, but Harrelson's riveting performance keeps us involved throughout.
The casting of Harrelson is crucial, as his presence goes a long way towards giving us an idea of who Brown is. There's frequently an element of insanity in Harrelson's performances (even in some of his more low-key comic turns), a feverish glint in his eye which suggests that he might transform into Mickey Knox at any moment. Here, he essays a man who seems to be holding countless demons in check, which is frightening given how many demons he permits to wander free. He's a tenacious survivor, and he's willing to do almost anything to survive.
There's a terrific scene early in the film that establishes Brown's peculiar family dynamic. He lives in the same neighborhood as his two ex-wives, who are sisters. He has a child with each of them. This peculiar quintet gathers for dinner, and Brown quietly scoots from one end of the table to the next, quietly asking each of his exes whether they'd be interested in letting him sleep with them for the night. They both politely decline, but in a way that suggests they occasionally take him up on such offers. There's some conversation about a lurid art project done by one of Brown's daughters, and the chat veers between light bickering and playful bewilderment. Despite the obvious measure of tension, we marvel at the fact that these people are actually able to co-exist so successfully. When the conversation is over and both seduction attempts have failed, Brown wanders into the kitchen alone. While there, we see a fleeting glimpse of terrifying rage and frustration on his face -- pretending this whole thing actually works requires an enormous feat of acting.
This is Moverman's second film (his first was the moving drama The Messenger), and he continues to reveal himself as a director capable of using the minutiae of ordinary human behavior to quietly reveal a great deal about his characters. Both of his films are largely quiet dramas punctuated by moments of loud, overwhelming emotion. Both also employ a host of gifted actors in small supporting roles. In The Messenger, the bit parts were fully-formed portraits of distinctive individuals. Here, the supporting players are merely sketches, as our emphasis is always on Brown (and the level of involvement the supporting players play is directly proportioned to their level of involvement in Brown's life).
Among the participants: Anne Heche (Donnie Brasco) and Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City) as Brown's ex-wives, Brie Larson (United States of Tara) as his oldest daughter, Steve Buscemi (Boardwalk Empire) as a politician, Ned Beatty (Network) as a corrupt connection, Ben Foster (3:10 to Yuma) as a homeless junkie, Robin Wright (The Conspirator) as a defense attorney, Sigourney Weaver (Alien) as an Assistant D.A. and Ice Cube (Friday) as an Internal Affairs investigator. All of these talented folks do fine work, but Rampart is Harrelson's movie from start to finish. He isn't often counted among America's best dramatic actors; perhaps because he veers so recklessly between ambitious indie films (The Walker, The Messenger), popcorn movies (2012, Zombieland, The Hunger Games) and straight-to-DVD garbage (Surfer, Dude, Scorched). Even so, when he's on top of his game, he can be an unparalleled force. There's no doubt that Rampart is one of his finest roles to date.
Rampart (Blu-ray) has received a fine 1080p/2.35:1 transfer which accurately recreates the film's gritty visual style. The sun-soaked palette comes across with vibrance and clarity, and detail is exceptional throughout. The only issue I have is a small amount of noise which appears during some darker scenes, but it's not very prominent. This is a strong transfer, and it's matched by an aggressive Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround track which really gives your speaker system a workout. Granted, quite a few stretches of the film are exceptionally quiet, but the level of nuance in the sound design is impressive. However, the more chaotic sequences really pack a punch. Fair warning: there's an intentionally abrasive scene late in the film which features some jarring, unexpected techniques which may cause some viewers to think that something is wrong with their speakers and/or television. Don't be alarmed; it's part of the movie. Supplements include a commentary with Moverman and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski and a half-hour featurette on the making of the film (aptly titled "Featurette").
Harrelson's great, Moverman's talented and the movie is immensely watchable. Even so, it's hard to fight the argument that Rampart doesn't really have a whole lot of new ideas to bring to the bad-cop genre. It's one of the better attempts of recent years, but there are certainly moments in which the film simply seems to be trying to find ways to distract us from the fact that we've seen this story before. The film's surprising revelations are all related to the nature of the central character; the plot more or less follows the path you would expect it to. Still, as they say, it's about the journey rather than the destination.
Rampart deserves a place on your shelf next to Training Day and both Bad Lieutenant flicks. I'm looking forward to seeing what Moverman tackles next.
Review content copyright © 2012 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Millennium Entertainment
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Official Site