Cruising in his patrol car through Los Angeles streets where tourists fear to tread, officer Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) is always ready to pounce on criminals like a leopard tearing apart its prey. A proud and defiant member of the L.A. police department, he trusts his fists, nightstick, and gun more than the legal system. And to L.A.’s more privileged citizens, the ones who for reasons of race or class will never be victimized by Brown’s brutality, his tactics fall somewhere on the spectrum between forgivable and encouraged.
As for Oren Moverman, the writer/director of "Rampart," he knows that Brown, his movie’s protagonist, is a monster. But Moverman also understands that monsters do not create themselves. A Vietnam veteran with a bullying demeanor that would make Dirty Harry queasy, Brown once was a natural fit for the L.A. police department’s paramilitary-style approach to serving and protecting. By 1999, however, when the movie is set, Brown is the type of cop his superiors would like to banish from the rank and file -- at least for the time being.
The volatile Brown gives them their chance after he is caught on video, the great enemy of rogue cops, mercilessly beating a man who may or may not have intentionally T-boned his patrol car. In another time, even with the strong evidence against him, Brown could have avoided the consequences of his misconduct. But he has committed his offense against the backdrop of the Rampart scandal, a late 1990s public relations nightmare that involved a slew of L.A. anti-gang cops engaging in everything from perjury to murder. Brown’s fictional head seems primed to roll with the real ones.
Ever the true believer in himself, though, Brown will not succumb easily, no matter how much pressure politicians, bureaucrats, and the media put on him. As far as Brown is concerned, all he has done is his duty. Of course, only racists and misanthropes would believe that Brown’s attempt to run over Latinos with his patrol car should be a part of any law enforcement job description.
But there are also sane and thoughtful people willing to overlook Brown’s viciousness, because he occasionally directs it against truly loathsome individuals, like a serial date rapist he summarily executed years ago. Somewhat misleadingly, this murder earned him the nickname "Date Rape" Dave.
Co-writer James Ellroy has cut Brown from the same Oedipal cloth as another one of his characters, Wendell "Bud" White, the hotheaded "L.A. Confidential" cop who rides off into the sunset with the hooker of his dreams. Both men share a willingness to shoot the unarmed as well as an adolescent soft spot for the fairer sex. In Brown’s case, he is a master at turning on the caveman charm, essentially using the story about killing the date rapist as a pickup line to lure fragile women (Robin Wright and Audra McDonald) to his bed.
Brown also has two ex-wives (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon), a pair of sisters who have each given him a daughter. This too-close-for-genetic-comfort mating causes one of the daughters to wonder if she is technically inbred. Living together with Brown in cult-like fashion, Brown’s modest harem has come to realize that they have put themselves and their children at the mercy of a dangerous man-child. Now, they want out, but Brown is unwilling to simply accept the loss of his two mommy figures.
Regarding the plot of "Rampart," there is not much else to note. Brown’s violent behavior escalates as he tries to defend himself against forced retirement and possibly jail. And, in true Ellroy fashion, there is also a bit of conspiratorial rigmarole involving the powers-that-be and Brown’s shifty-eyed cop buddy/mentor (Ned Beatty). Moverman, far more interested in crafting a character study than any sort of narrative trajectory, tires of the Beatty storyline almost immediately and, with the equivalent of a directorial shoulder shrug, just lets it trail off.
It would have been preferable if Moverman had simply trimmed his script to only include what actually interested him, especially since that material, comprising the majority of the movie, is completely fascinating. Using the camera, as if he were making a nature film, with close-ups of Brown’s feral face that are often uncomfortably close, Moverman wants the audience to grapple with both the reality of Brown’s existence and the reasons for it. Moverman is not looking to excuse Brown’s behavior in any way, but he does convincingly suggest that Brown is not the only one culpable for it.
As Brown, Harrelson gives a strong, complex performance, adding surprising layers of humanity to a character most people would struggle to see as human. Judging by their work together in "Rampart" and the 2009 film "The Messenger," Moverman and Harrelson have an artistic rapport that other directors and actors should envy.