“We intimidate those who intimidate others.” (CRASH motto)
The Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums initiative of the LAPD was established in the late 70s to combat the rising problem of gangs in Los Angeles (largely a result of the introduction of crack cocaine). Each of the 18 divisions of the LAPD had their own CRASH unit conducting elite special operations to clean up the streets, using whatever methods necessary. The Rampart Division served the most densely populated area in LA – over 375,000 people – and its CRASH unit produced serious results; in its late 80s heyday it was making hundreds of arrests a day. In 1998, however, a series of incidents led to shocking revelations about extensive corruption within the Rampart CRASH unit. Over 70 officers were implicated, with cops accused of being on gang payrolls, framing suspects, stealing drugs, committing armed robbery, and even doing drive-bys.
Several movies have used this controversial part of LA police history as either a backdrop or a direct inspiration for the tales told – most prominently the Denzel Washington thriller Training Day – and we have also had seven seasons of the excellent, Award-winning TV show The Shield covering this territory in great detail (in fact it was even originally titled Rampart). L.A. Confidential writer James Ellroy himself had not only written a number of books about contemporary LA corruption – some of which have been adapted into films – but has also done a number of screenplays (resulting in the likes of the Keanu Reeves film Street Kings and the Kurt Russell film Dark Blue). Rampart is the latest film covering this subject matter, co-written by Ellroy. It’s well-acted and well-scripted but, ultimately, it tells the same story that we’ve heard a dozen times before over the last decade, and introduces very little new into the mix.
It’s 1999 and Veteran cop Dave Brown is one of the last dinosaurs. His nickname is ‘Date Rape’ because of the rumours about him having executed a rape suspect in cold blood. His mentality forged from his experiences in Vietnam, he has been brought up on old school rules, bending or breaking the law to execute the kind of street justice that was encouraged in the eighties, but had become increasingly unpopular in the nineties. After the events of 1998, however, the LAPD was now just itching for an excuse to clean house. So when a seemingly innocuous traffic incident spirals out of control and becomes a media frenzy and publicity nightmare for them, Brown is forced to take increasingly drastic steps to pay his legal team just to keep his job. Soon his professional and personal lives are both on the line, with no clear way out.
The greatest thing about Rampart is Woody Harrelson. He’s provided several engaging performances across his career, and several prominent ones – from White Men Can’t Jump to Natural Born Killers – and, more recently, he’s turned in an entertaining contribution to the fun Zombieland, was scene-stealing in Friends with Benefits, gained some publicity from The Hunger Games, and was simply excellent in The Messenger (written and directed by the man behind Rampart).
Here he gives a striking central performance as the corrupt cop Dave Brown. Don’t be fooled though, this isn’t a grandstanding, obvious-Oscar-candidate, semi-theatrical offering like Washington’s awesome “King Kong ain’t got sh*t on me” performance in Training Day; this is more of a method piece – a moody examination of one man’s largely internalised self-destruction – and all the more unusual for it. It’s gritty, compelling, and resoundingly authentic.
Harrelson is not just the best thing about Rampart, but also pretty-much the only reason to watch it; the reason why you’ll stay glued to the screen through thick and thin over the course of this feature. The reality is that the painfully odd directorial style, the redundantly familiar and unavoidably clichéd plot, and the surprisingly out-of-place background characters all conspire to make this a fairly unpleasant and eminently pointless little movie, but for its standout lead performance.
Trouble comes first and foremost with the familiarity. This is not the first time we have covered this ground. Hell, this is not even the first time we have encountered problems with familiarity with films that cover this ground. Take, for example, Werner Herzog’s remake of Abel “King of New York” Ferrara’s seminal Harvey Keitel vehicle, Bad Lieutenant. Like Rampart, it was an unnecessarily familiar vehicle that was only really remarkable because of the excellent central performance from Nicolas Cage.
Rampart takes elements from a dozen other movies and TV shows – including the Bad Lieutenant films; the aforementioned Training Day; the underrated Richard Gere / Andy Garcia thriller Internal Affairs, and, of The Shield – and rolls them all up into one predictable package. Alcohol and drug abuse? Check. Womanising? Check. Racism? Check. Money problems? Check. Maverick anti-authority behaviour? Check. Aggressively violent behaviour towards criminals and suspects? Check. Indeed, as the actions of the lead character in Rampart get progressively worse and increasingly desperate, you only find yourself yawning more and wondering not only why they bothered telling this story again, but why they expected you to even care. Don’t believe the front cover – this isn’t “the most corrupt cop you’ve ever seen on screen”; this probably isn’t even the most corrupt cop you’ve seen on screen this year.
The supporting performances are fine, but the characters themselves only further muddy the waters. It’s not just that they are the usual clichéd, stereotypical bunch that you would expect from this kind of ‘corrupt cop drama’, but also the fact that none of them have been thought out very well – perhaps in some attempt to break the mould, each and every one of them do or say something particularly odd, not just for their character, but also for the film itself. Unfortunately, rather than adding a fresh new angle to the proceedings, all this does is make it harder for you to accept the characterisations.
You’ve got the typically dogged IA investigator – played well by a surprisingly on-form Ice Cube (Boyz n the Hood, 21 Jump Street) – who has his own agenda, but rather incredulously refuses to do anything with the self-incriminating evidence Harrelson’s corrupt cop literally hands to him; there’s the impotent assistant DA – Sigourney Weaver, here proving yet again, along with Red Lights, that she’s far from just a reincarnated Smurf after Avatar) – out-manoeuvred and out-argued at every stage by the cop’s part-intellectual, part-verbose ability to justify his actions; the bad girl attorney – a distinctly vacant Robin Wright (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Moneyball) – who is inexplicably drawn to the corrupt cop, indeed perhaps because of his corruption; and the dodgy ex-force contact – Ned Beatty with terrible teeth (Toy Story 3, Superman) – who you know is never going to be the ‘true friend’ that he keeps saying he is, but whose motivations are never really revealed. Oh, and Steve Buscemi takes a day off from the excellent Boardwalk Empire to provide a lifeless cameo as a typically feeble political suit in the most irritatingly-filmed sequence in the entire movie (more on that later).
Then there’s the wives. Yes, wives – plural. This cop, despite being an overt dinosaur in every respect, has not one, but two wives: sisters, no less, married consecutively. They all live together in adjacent properties, and he has a kid with each, alternating which one of their mothers he sleeps with – normally dependent on which one he can “seduce” with his unexplained allure. The daughters (the elder played brilliantly by 21 Jump Street’s Brie Larson) don’t really know what to make of the whole situation – at one time confronting him over whether or not they are inbred! – and nor do we, as viewers, since there is very little reason or explanation given as to how this sexist, misogynistic dinosaur could have ended up marrying two sisters.
Perhaps the difficulty swallowing this scenario comes from their characterisations, though, more than anything else: they are both painted as intelligent, modern, forward-thinking women (you would expect no less from Sex in the City’s Cynthia Nixon and Donnie Brasco’s Anne Heche) and you have to wonder why – and how – they got into this situation, and why, after years of clearly tolerating it, they have finally had enough now. These two actresses, and their respective characters, further contribute to one of the most frustrating aspects of the movie: inconsistency.
On the plus side, an almost unrecognisable Ben Foster puts in another great little against-type performance – in fact, does he even have a type? – reuniting with both Harrelson and the director after their tour of duty on The Messenger, in a small but compelling cameo.
The director’s visual style is also frustrating as hell. Oren Moverman clearly has style, but he goes way over the top. Perhaps it’s an attempt to distinguish himself from the crowd – which he certainly does – but it’s more infuriating than endearing. The long tracking side-profile shots of the lead character (who is in 99% of the scenes in the movie) are brilliant, and the director undoubtedly has an eye for detail when observing Woody Harrelson in action, more often than not painting his 1000-word scene with a single image, but there are several wilder, more art-house moments that appear to be little more than style for style’s sake.
In one scene, Harrelson’s cop, Sigourney Weaver’s ADA and Buscemi’s politician all have a three-way argument, and the camera spins painfully between the three of them, not only circling but actually weaving in and out as it passes each respective character. It’s weird, unnecessary and goes on way too long, and, by the end of it, you will have likely switched off completely from the important things that are being said, and be more preoccupied with when this little nausea-inducing roundabout-ride will stop so that you can step off.
In another drug-induced-delirium scene Harrelson’s cop visits a sex club and the camera takes a complete trip of its own, harsh red-light-district reds penetrating almost every shot, and giving you a hint at the hangover he himself is going to wake up with. It should be effective, but instead it just seems over-the-top, much like the fairground ride scene.
Ultimately, the ending is also something of a fatal flaw, choosing instead to turn this entire feature into more of a ‘week in the life of’ tale, episodic in nature, and thus even less remarkable. Had this not been territory well covered before, it might have been effective, but since it is, the end result feels like a mid-season, middle season episode of The Shield, something which is particularly dissatisfying when you consider the conspiracy theories that are bandied around across the runtime – none of which gets resolved. Some might regard this as avant-garde, independent filmmaking but, as with the over-indulgent style, it just smacks of self-involvement, and only further renders the piece redundant.
I should state that, in any other film, all of these factors would leave it an unquestionable write-off, but it’s a testament to the precision and power of Harrelson’s lead performance that the film is still – amazingly – actually worth watching. Harrelson chain-smokes his way through every scene, resoundingly committed to the role in spite of what works and doesn’t work around him; in spite of the familiar ground he’s treading and the clichéd lines that he is sometimes compelled to say.
Whether rattling on about Vietnam, or preaching about not being a racist but instead “hating all people equally”, his corrupt cop is a twisted animal whose increasingly immoral actions and driven behaviour will hook you right from the outset. He plays a character who unflinchingly believes in his own distorted set of ‘street rules’ – “it’s not cheating if you’re not committed in the first place” – and, without an actor who believed in the role, the end result would have been so much less sincere. By the end of the film you’re no longer looking at Harrelson, but instead a broken cop whose life has been ruined largely by his own actions. Sure, it would have helped for there to be some light at the end of the tunnel; some glimmer of hope in this corrupt realm, but – as with Keitel in Bad Lieutenant – the performance itself is enough to draw you in and command your attention. Just don’t expect it to be either an easy, pleasant, or particularly satisfying ride.
“You’re a dinosaur, Date Rape. You’re a classic racist, a bigot, a sexist, a womaniser, a chauvinist, a misanthrope; homophobic clearly – or maybe you just don’t like yourself.”
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