'Date Rape' Dave Brown (Harrelson) is an old-school cop in the corruption-riven Rampart Division of Los Angeles of 1999. After his car is rammed, he's caught on video assaulting the culprit, but refuses to be forced into retirement. The legal fight costs him, though, and to try and clear himself, Dave must first sink deeper...
The last time writer/director Oren Moverman and Woody Harrelson worked together, Harrelson garnered critical acclaim and an Oscar nom in a film that barely smudged the box office. The same looks likely with their latest collaboration, Rampart, although James Ellroy’s co-scripting credit and the dirty-LAPD milieu (what else did you expect from Ellroy?) might fill a few more seats than 2009’s military drama The Messenger.
It’s oft-covered territory: the sunbleached streets of Los Angeles, trodden by racist beat cops who see law enforcement as war and brutality, shakedowns and evidence-planting as just a few means to which the end is justified. As well as a good way to line their own pockets. In this case that cop is ‘Date Rape’ Dave Brown (Harrelson), who misses the days when “this used to be a glorious soldiers’ department” and who’ll dispense to a rookie such advice as “aim for the shortest wetback, watch them skedaddle”. We hardly ever see him eat (for Dave a family meal involves whispered come-ons to both his exes, who happen to be home-sharing sisters and each a mother to his two daughters), but he drinks, smokes and snaffles behind-the-counter pills to excess.
The late ’90s Rampart scandal, which gives the film its title, is mere backdrop. The actual plot is thin. Date Rape is filmed beating a man and sinks into debt fighting his case while mothballed skeletons rattle noisily, but if Moverman’s film benefits from the acid tang of Ellroy’s dialogue, it lacks the juggernauting plot-thrust of his novels.
It’s more a character study and a performance workshop, with Harrelson in every scene. And it’s an undeniably impressive performance; not so much a study of evil as of a weakling who confuses his anachronistic tendencies with strength, the bully who sees himself as victim, “the one cop who gets it”. In Harrelson’s hands Brown is a compelling mess of spilled testosterone.
You wonder, though, if Moverman has as much faith as he should in his lead. Rampart is so fussily directed, a stuffed scrapbook of skewed angles, odd framing and jarring cuts. One potentially great scene — putting Harrelson, Sigourney Weaver and Steve Buscemi around one table — suffers an irritatingly spinning dizzyvision camera. The intention may well be to encourage us to see the world much as Date Rape does: wrongly. But it distracts rather than complements and can’t cover up the fact that, Harrelson’s towering turn aside, we’re not really watching anything new here.
A familiar story oddly presented, but with a powerful central performance from Woody Harrelson.