The notorious legacy of the Los Angeles Police Department makes its way back to the big screen in the intense drama “Rampart,” in which Woody Harrelson poignantly plays corrupt L.A. cop Dave Brown. Titled in reference to the area around Rampart Blvd. that was policed by a corrupt, brutal LAPD anti-gang unit in the late 1990s, the movie portrays a tense era, characterized by unprovoked beatings and shootings. Under director Oren Moverman, “Rampart” showcases the unraveling of Brown, a policeman whose head is barely above the surface of the flood of excesses he has created in his life. Through a believable acting performance by Harrelson coupled with a satisfyingly complex script, “Rampart” serves as an interesting intellectual exercise yet stops short of being an emotional masterpiece
The movie keenly depicts Brown’s attempt to juggle two ex-wives and two daughters as he finds refuge in a flask of brandy behind the wheel of his police car and dishes out a little extra police tough love in the crime-ridden Rampart division. Each scene is shot within the heart of the L.A. hoods, conveying the intensity of the crime within Rampart, the cynical media portrayal of the LAPD, and Brown’s internal turmoil. The lighting is particularly effective, as the screen turns dark and overcast whenever Brown shows his vice-filled nature—overindulging in drugs or women—and fills with daylight whenever he is forced to answer questions from his ex-wives or boss. During the scenes when Brown is confronted about his brutality, the camera switches harshly between interrogator and interrogated, and when Brown’s life and substance abuse whirl out of control, the camera does the same.
Harrelson’s performance as Brown is especially critical in that it brings the setting and story into an environment that is believable to the viewer. It is this believability that causes the movie to strike a chord in the viewer’s mind. The building tension that increases throughout the movie is developed through the media frenzy over the corruption of the LAPD and Brown’s ex-wives’ increasing ostracism; however, although the downfall is fascinating to watch, the film does not succeed in provoking sympathy in the viewer.
For example, the film captures human denial in Brown’s refusal to accept blame for his act of unceasingly beating a man almost to the point of death. Despite the televised evidence of his act and elevation of already significant racial tensions in Rampart, the brazenness of Brown’s insistence that his action displays his dedication to serving as true cop is at first surprising. He even audaciously claims that he “did [the man] a favor instead of shooting him.” Although Brown’s lack of remorse seems rather unbelievable, his character begins to be described by a fellow police officer who tells him, “You think you’re smarter than you are, Dave,” and an old friend of his father who tells him that “Things change, but you don’t.” Brown’s pride and stubbornness are respectively revealed through these two characters’ seemingly simple statements.
With these relatively spartan exchanges, screenwriter James Ellroy’s work can truly be appreciated, and one can come to understand his title as the “Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction.” Brown is shamelessly and violently stripped to the core through other character’s dialogue in his struggle to explain to others the nature of his character.
However, despite the laudable potential of “Rampart” to be a great psychological drama, it leaves a more to be desired. One surely can appreciate the gritty portrayal of one crime-infested Los Angeles neighborhood through the internal turmoil of a man defined by his work in that neighborhood. Sprinkling in moments of witty humor, the film shines in its believability. But although Dave Brown’s struggle is palpable, it fails to leave a lasting impression. The number of scenes in which Brown truly breaks composure to display vulnerability are too few to create sympathy, and the exposition of his faults create too negative a picture to view him as an anti-hero. Thus, audiences will feel that not enough is at stake.