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Rampart: Buzz For Woody 

Rating: ***

RAMPART
***
DIRECTED BY Oren Moverman
STARS Woody Harrelson, Sigourney Weaver

WASHED UP: Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) desperately tries to keep his personal and professional lives afloat in Rampart. - MILLENNIUM ENTERTAINMENT
  • Millennium Entertainment
  • WASHED UP: Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) desperately tries to keep his personal and professional lives afloat in Rampart.

Dave Brown, the corrupt cop at the center of Rampart, is described by one of his own daughters as "a dinosaur ... a classic racist, a bigot, a sexist, a womanizer, a chauvinist, a misanthrope, homophobic clearly." Why stop there? He's also a bully, a thief, a murderer — and one of the most compelling cops seen on screen in some time.

Dave Brown is played by Woody Harrelson, who earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination a couple of years ago for his supporting stint in writer-director Oren Moverman's The Messenger. Whereas that film found Harrelson playing a decent man grimly doing a dirty job — an army captain tasked with informing families of the deaths of their loved ones who were off fighting for God and country — Moverman's new picture finds him cast as an indecent man happily tackling a dirty job: serving as a "soldier" (his word) in an effort to cleanse the Los Angeles "jungle" (ditto). With a real-life 1999 LA police scandal serving as the backdrop, Rampart follows Dave as his life begins a downward spiral. Caught on camera savagely beating a civilian and later involved in a highly questionable shooting that leaves a Hispanic man dead, Dave becomes the poster child for everything that's wrong with the police force. He becomes a target of both the d.a.'s office (repped by Sigourney Weaver and Steve Buscemi) and an Internal Affairs investigator (Ice Cube), and he's not even sure he can trust his friends; specifically, a lawyer who comes to share his bed (Robin Wright) and an ex-cop with dirty dealings but a clean reputation (Ned Beatty).

With a rare screenplay from L.A. Confidential novelist James Ellroy that he co-wrote with Moverman, Rampart is more of a character study than any sort of crime procedural, and it's all the better for it. Adding to its allure are the offbeat domestic scenes that find Dave contending with his two ex-wives (Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche), who not only happen to be sisters but also live with their daughters (one apiece) all under the same roof. Given the knotty dynamics at play, it's not really surprising that Dave is the one who's ordered to move out.

Dave Brown appears to be a distant cousin to the title character from 1992's Bad Lieutenant, although neither Harrelson nor Rampart ever veer as close to the edge as Harvey Keitel's sleazy cop or the NC-17 film that housed him. In fact, despite his myriad flaws, it's impossible to completely write Dave off. His notoriety on the force stems from an incident from several years back, when he killed a serial date-rapist out of disgust — vigilante aspect aside, it's hard to side against a guy like that. And it's interesting to note that while he often beats people up (only the "bad ones," he assures everyone), he never strikes any women, even when one (Heche) deliberately provokes him and another (Wright) throws a glass at him (his typical reaction to most confrontations is laughter). And when he tells Ice Cube's intrepid IA agent, "I am not a racist. The fact is, I hate all people equally," we believe him, at least momentarily. (Of course, he can't stop himself from adding, with a smile, "And if it helps, I've slept with some of your people.")

Yet where Dave Brown most earns our sympathy is when it comes to his relationships with his two daughters, teenage Helen (Brie Larson) and moppet Margaret (Sammy Boyarsky). He loves them unequivocally, not grasping that the choices he makes in all areas of his life — at work and at home — will invariably come to poison their love and respect for him. He's already all but lost Helen, and it's possible that Margaret will follow suit. Harrelson delivers an excellent performance from start to finish, but he's especially affecting in those sequences in which he's agonizing over the sins of the father and what they end up costing him.

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