In the pantheon of crooked cop movies like Training Day and Bad Lieutenant, Rampart shines as a unique character study, relying more heavily on the psychological element rather than the thrills that are hallmarks of the film noir genre. Woody Harrelson’s Dave Brown is not the typical one-dimensional thug or the sociopathic power-abuser with simple motivations of greed and control. His performance is intense, roiling with an undercurrent of claustrophobia and threat; he's a man on the brink of a complete unraveling.
Co-written by crime novelist extraordinaire [The Black Dahlia, L.A. Confidential] James Ellroy, Rampart is partly inspired by the real-life story of the scandal that rocked the Rampart District of the LAPD in the 1990s, where nearly 70 of the department’s force were accused of egregious misconduct and, essentially, running a gang of their own.
The movie, set in 1999, riffs on the tensions that the Rodney King case stirred up. The action unfolds with Dave getting caught on video beating a suspect. The film has some vaguely X-Files-ish overtones: there is the ear-whispering Smoking Man played by a reptilian Ned Beatty. Dave Brown seems to have no problem digging his own grave, but there is no shortage of people handing him shovels either. When he is wryly advised that he “could just stop beating people up," Dave acerbically retorts, "I don't stop to see if there's a camera in my way when I do the people's dirty work.” No doubt he can’t really be “framed” for something he did anyway, but there is also the sense that Dave will be the poster child for the department’s crackdown on malfeasance. The shifting tide seems destined to sweep Dave with it and his refusal to change (or maybe inability) now has deleterious consequences.
This is some of what makes his character so interesting and different from the macho caricatures of Training Day and Bad Lieutenant. After 24 years on the force, he is equal parts placated by rationalizations yet crippled with guilt. He is not so far gone beyond the moral boundaries to be unaware of them and his coping mechanisms seem to be a result of his view of the world as an antagonistic place, not too different from a jungle. When he tells a wide-eyed rookie, "Everything you learned at the Academy is bullshit. This is a military occupation," we see that he probably believes that, or at least that this is a suitable enough cover that lets him sleep at night.
Director Oren Moverman's cinematography is perfect for setting the tense atmosphere of the film. Extremely close shots convey the feeling of claustrophobia and paranoia. No one is what they seem to be and answers are hard to come by. Brown is a complex and conflicting study of a man—he may act like a thug, but he is extremely eloquent and clearly very smart. He is not the compulsive womanizer of the cop movie past; if anything, he tries to be a good father and a husband (of sorts) to his two ex-wives. He is not nihilistic or self-destructive for the mere sake of it. At his core, Brown is characterized by cynicism and misanthropy: "I am not a racist. I hate all people." Ultimately, he wants to fix the mess he is in, yet his incorrigibility plunges him into quicksand.
Rampart is a taut and mesmerizing portrait of a man “falling down.” It steers clear of reductionist explanations and breathes a new life into tired genre.