In Cinemas: Rampart is no ordinary police drama

A movie that screened at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, Rampart showcases Woody Harrelson's charismatic performance.

Woody Harrelson stars as David Douglas Brown in Rampart.
Powered by automated translation

Director: Oren Moverman
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Robin Wright, Sigourney Weaver

A film that screened at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival last year and deservedly earned its star, Woody Harrelson, the award for Best Actor at the festival, Rampart is a tense study of corruption ruled over by one of Harrelson's best roles yet as the rogue cop Dave Brown.

Rampart was the division of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) caught up in the scandal over police malpractice in the 1990s. Set in 1999, the director Oren Moverman's drama takes place on the periphery of the Rampart investigations. Indeed, it's part of the power of the tale that Dave is almost oblivious to the greater investigation going on around him and continues carrying out what he sees as normal "police practice" of apprehending criminals by force, planting evidence and generally working above the law. His policy is that if you are part of a gang, then you have what is coming to you.

If this all sounds a bit Dirty Harry, it's not, mainly because of Harrelson's charismatic performance and the desire of Moverman to make a character study rather than an action movie.

Dave is the quintessential alpha male. His home life is as parlous as his police work. He married two sisters (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon) consecutively, which leads to him explaining to his youngest daughter that her teenage sister (the rising star Brie Larsson) is both her half-sister and first cousin. Confusion is compounded by the fact that he keeps neighbouring houses with both of his ex-wives. The sisters finally decide to kick the increasingly haphazard father out of their communal living space when Dave's notoriety grows after CCTV footage of him beating up a black hoodlum becomes headline news.

With the media focus on police malpractice escalating, rogue cops are being encouraged to retire. However, Dave, in keeping with his smug know-it-all mentality, knows all the court cases involving police procedural mishaps by heart and he continually outfoxes the lawyers and politicians with his knowledge. Weaver, Steve Buscemi, Ned Beatty and Ice Cube are all given cameos as various arms of the administration attempting to coerce Dave to quit. He also gets involved with a lawyer he meets in a bar (Wright), despite his initial fear that she may be doing a number on him. Eye candy is the officer's blindside.

All this makes Dave a far more interesting and complex character than other bent cops, such as Sean Penn in Colors and Denzel Washington in Training Day.

There are also plenty of similarities with Moverman's last outing, The Messenger, about soldiers who have the job of telling American families about the death of their loved ones in Iraq. Moverman shoots the action as if it were a documentary; the camera peeks around corners, catches glimpses of the action and is often obscured by the glare of the sun. The story unfolds rather than gets told. The narrative, co-written by the LA Confidential writer James Ellroy, is told at a meandering pace that occasionally gets jolted by elaborate set pieces, as when Dave busts an illegal card game. Unfortunately, it's when Moverman tries his hand at more conventional police drama that the illuminating film has its weaker moments.