Sunday, March 4, 2012

Breaking Down RAMPART


- Every year, a number of films get a small, limited release in November or December so as to qualify for the Oscars. Some of those films end up riding a wave of awards-season hype and fanfare. They have successful limited-run releases and get re-released early on in the new year for expanded runs. But there are also many would-be contenders that, for whatever reason, never break away from the pact. I think back to a few years ago, when Children of Men sneaked in at late December. Or more recently, the great but overlooked film The Way Back. This past year, one of those little, late-year gems was a film called RAMPART, which despite coming up empty in terms of Oscar noms, did enjoy a decent expanded release in February. And I'm glad it did. While not mind-blowing, per se, Rampart is a pitch-black LA noir about a corrupt cop who is a hero in his own mind. It features one of the career-best performances from Woody Harrelson, and a fantastic supporting cast. It's well worth a look for anyone in the mood for a gritty, slightly surreal cop drama that pulls no punches.

Set in 1999, Rampart, though a relatively small-scale story, has a slightly apocalyptic tone befitting of the year in which it's set. Harrelson plays David Brown, a tough, chauvinistic, racist, asshole, son-of-a-bitch cop who fancies himself the last real renegade, the one cop who's willing to do what it takes to get the job done. In a city that's still reeling from riots and police corruption, Brown is a liability to the force. Somehow, he's managed to keep his job - in part, it's because he can be a smooth-talker, and he's deceptively smart. So whenever his penchant for brutality gets him in trouble with his superiors, he's usually able to weasel his way out of any serious consequences. But the man is a walking time bomb. Even his nickname implies it - "date rape" - bestowed upon him in honor of his most famous victim. As the story goes, Brown once killed a man who he claimed was a serial rapist, but most believe that the guy was an innocent joe who Brown just happened to have a mad-on for.

Still, Brown keeps on doing his thing in the LAPD until one day when a car rams into him while he's on duty. Brown leaps out of his police car, chases after the assailant, and catches him. The driver - who happens to be African-American, pleads with Brown that it was an accident, but Brown won't hear it. He takes out his club and brutally beats on the man. A nearby news crew captures the whole incident on tape - and soon, Brown is LA's most hated cop. As the walls begin to close in on Brown and his barely-held-together life, he doesn't relent. Instead, he gets increasingly reckless and violent. He's convinced that there's a conspiracy to bring him down - that he was set up - that it wasn't an accident that the news crew was there to capture the beating. And so begins the downward spiral of David "Date Rape" Brown.

As Brown, Harrelson is at the top of his game. Brown is a guy who is lean, mean, animalistic, and just short of psychotic. Harrelson plays him to perfection - mixing tough-guy badassery with bouts of unpredictable rage and madness. Harrelson makes Brown a truly disturbing character - a guy who is oddly likable in his own way - for his sheer doggedness and survival-instinct - and yet who is, in so many other ways, just plain despicable. Though Harrelson didn't pick up quite enough attention here to garner a Best Actor nomination, I'd still put this right up there with the best and most memorable leading man performances I've seen in the last year.

Harrelson is also surrounded by a star-studded supporting cast. A big standout is Sigourney Weaver as Harrelson's superior in the LAPD, a ball-breaker who can go toe-to-toe with the snake-like Brown. I also thought that Ben Foster did a great job as a drug-addicted homeless man who serves as an informant to Brown - it's an unglamorous yet impressive turn for Foster. There's also a fantastic part played by Ned Beatty, as an elder ex-cop and Brown's friend / informant. All sorts of other great actors pop up, from Steve Buscemi to Anne Heche to Robin Wright. Even Jon Bernthal - Shane from The Walking Dead - has a pretty nice little cameo role as a cop.

Now, the movie's got a great cast, but where I think it gets a lot of its juice is from the script, co-written by director Oren Moverman and the great James Ellroy (LA Confidential). Ellroy is a master of LA noir, and he shows it here. Just the world he creates - a world of grey-shaded characters, crime, corruption, and darkness - makes for a movie brimming with atmosphere and a great, palpable sense of dread. That said, I also give a lot of credit to Oren Moverman. His direction is vivid and visually stunning, with a sun-baked, hot, sticky LA setting that acts as one of the movie's stars. Moverman tries some interesting things that are a bit atypical for a movie of this sort. He shoots certain scenes in a very trippy, surreal fashion - emphasizing the fact that Brown is beginning to lose his mind a bit as he increasingly descends into a drug-soaked state of paranoia. The fact that the aesthetics of the movie veer so wildly at times can be disorienting - the film shifts from gritty drama to surreal nightmare to over-the-top action, and that can be a little jarring. Mostly, it works, and it makes Rampart feel unique and different. Every so often though, scenes will feel too over-the-top or stylized as compared to the bulk of the movie.

To that end, a couple of key plot points in the film struck me as a little too cartoonish. Some of Brown's more over-the-top behavior, but also some of the more basic framework elements of the film. For example, Brown's home-life is a lot to swallow. He's the ex-husband of two sisters, and has a daughter with each - one a rebellious teen, the other a precocious tween. The sisters live in a connected duplex, between which Brown alternates his time - occasionally still sleeping with both of them. It's certainly a unique scenario, but you can't help but wonder what's taking these sisters so long to get the hell away from this guy and get their daughters away from this ridiculously awkward situation. The movie tries to explain that Brown's sense of family and love for his daughters keeps everyone living together - but still, come on.

All in all though, I really liked the movie. It was a fantastic character study and, at the same time, it worked as a larger metaphor for America at the turn of the 21st century. Brown was a monster, but at least he was an honest one who made it clear where he stood. Rampart paints a picture of an America with no more room for the Dave Brown's of the world. But by driving him out, were we just making way for an evil that's simply less obvious, but no less dangerous? At the end of the day, RAMPART is a very dark, very grim crime noir film that is an outstanding showpiece for Woody Harrelson. If you're in the mood for a smart but eminently #$%&'ed-up movie, check it out.

My Grade: B+

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