Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Rampart Review

In a recent issue of Esquire (don’t judge), veteran actor Woody Harrelson was asked a quickfire round of questions on his career, literature, sports – the general gamut. The short article, adorned with a blow up of the man’s face, goofy grin literally splitting the image in half, had Harrelson merrily trot out the word “phenomenal” four times. In Harrelson’s eyes, everything’s groovy, and it’s hard not to get caught up in his sincere affection for – well, everything. In light of this, his turn as ‘Nam and LAPD vet Dave “Date Rape” Brown in Rampart, the actor’s second collaboration with director Oren Moverman, is all the more striking. The unwelcome stench left over after the Rampart scandal of the late ‘90s, Brown is a dinosaur, whose failure to adapt to a more stringent system provides writer Ellroy with another opportunity to explore LA corruption, whilst paving the way for one utterly convincing character piece from Harrelson.

 It’s 1999. In the aftermath of the infamous Rampart scandal, a two year fiasco that saw LAPD cops involved  in everything from drug dealing and bank robbery to Death Row Records, officer Dave Brown finds himself faced with a police department that no longer wishes to cater for his cavalier method of law enforcement. “Date Rape”, so named for his alleged murder of a serial date rapist, plays on this shaky, street-justice persona to excuse a career of double-dealing, bigoted self-service that embodies everything uncovered in the Rampart shakedown. And yet, he’s still around. Following the reckless beating of a hit and run driver, however, Brown finds himself under more and more scrutiny from the media and the state, his flawed attempts to ratify and rewrite his actions instead closing the net tighter and tighter around him.

 Brown comes from a long line of dirty cops on screen, and the film shares more than a little in common with Keitel’s original rendition of “The Bad Lieutenant.” Whilst Keitel’s cop was perhaps the more shocking (despite Rampart’s ambitiously stated tagline: “The most corrupt cop you’ve ever seen on screen”), Harrelson’s is arguably the more electrifying performance, offering a far more coherent character portrait than the schizoid approach favoured in Ferrara’s equally barmy film. Brown might be a brutal bastard, but he’s also loquacious and (for the most part) canny – to call him charming would be to suggest he was cliché-ridden. He’s a womaniser in the most clinical sense of the word, alternately living with neighbouring sisters who have both mothered daughters for him, and Harrelson endows Brown with the necessary swagger, revealing the desperation and sickness more and more as the gravity of Brown’s situation becomes ever clearer.

 Ably married to this is Moverman and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski’s rendition of LA; a saturated land bleeding colours and heat to a point of claustrophobia, it’s as gaudy and hollow as the man declaring himself its king. Moverman’s handicam is frequently up in the face of the film’s cast, making the fraught scenes with Brown’s former lovers, Catherine (Anne Heche) and Barbara (Cynthia Nixon) feel particularly volatile. Less energised is the film’s moment of delirious excess; the stock “sex-club-bathed-in-red-light-with-pumping-soundtrack-and-dispassionate-camera-work” that seems to be the short-circuit way of highlighting just how terribly low a man can go. We saw it in Shame a few months ago and it was, to be quite honest, the laziest moment of that film also. It also only helps highlight some of the rougher edges to Ellroy’s script, which seems to hope that some of its fraying corners might be mistaken for the general tone of helplessness that tracks Brown.

 Brie Larson, Sigourney Weaver and Ice Cube all give satisfying performances as the voices of reason bearing down on Brown, but at the end of the day, this is undoubtedly a one man gig, and a strong one at that. Whilst it might not be quite as tightly penned as that other New Hollywood successor referenced above, Rampart is nevertheless a well-constructed character study that also returns to the murky cop dramas of the 90s without retreading them.