Woody Harrelson is good at playing bad, but this study of police corruption seems too familiar.
Oren Moverman’s latest film is named for the Los Angeles Police Department scandal in the late 1990s that cast a pall on the department and its anti-gang task force for years. David “Date Rape” Brown (Woody Harrelson) is a veteran of that war, the last bad cop standing but slowly edging down the drain in a swirl of his own arrogance, stupidity and impulsive behavior. He drinks too much, smokes too much, sleeps with too many women and doesn’t see the point in treating suspects as anything more than animals. His nickname comes from a rape suspect he allegedly shot and killed, an act he never quite admits (he does not seem bothered by the implication he assassinated an man without benefit of a trial). When confronted with department brass (Sigourney Weaver), he is unrepentant and determined not to retire. Being a cop, even a terrible one, is all he really knows.
This all sounds familiar, doesn’t it? One of the problems with Rampart is that we’ve seen guys like Dave in movies and on TV for years now. The bad cop psyche has been delved into pretty deeply on all fronts, most notably in FX’s brilliant series The Shield, which had more time and space to flesh out its antihero and the actions that led inexorably to his downfall. There’s nothing new or revelatory about Dave’s story, though you might expect more from the great crime writer James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential), who co-wrote the screenplay.
Harrelson delivers a strong performance as a man staring into the abyss, displaying traces of the psychopath from Natural Born Killers but also occasionally showing brief flashes of vulnerability that make you feel a slight bump of pity for Dave (which doesn’t last long). His home life is a mess. He appears to have married two sisters (Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche) and had daughters with both of them, and neither of them wants him hanging around her house anymore. Only his youngest daughter has much use for him, and even she’s growing wary.
Rampart is more of a character study than a plot-driven action film, though the movie hinges on the robbery of a high-stakes poker game. Dave has a hand in the theft, of course, and every decision he makes along the way cements his future. Moverman (The Messenger, I’m Not There) sometimes spins his camera around Dave and the suits at a table to indicate how out of control things are despite Dave’s calm demeanor in front of his persecutors, but it feels like an empty show. Rampart travels a well-worn road, and not even Harrelson’s solid work can make us feel that we haven’t seen it all before.
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster, Sigourney Weaver, Ned Beatty, Robin Wright, Cynthia Nixon, Anne Heche.
Director: Oren Moverman.
Screenwriters: James Ellroy, Oren Moverman.
Producers: Ben Foster, Lawrence Ingee, Ken Kao.
A Millennium Entertainment studios release. Running time: 108 minutes. Pervasive language, sexual content, some violence. Opens Friday March 2 in Miami-Dade: Aventura, Sunset; in Palm Beach: Palace.