“Of all the rotten cops out there, why are you in for the one cop that gets it?” So Dave Brown defends himself against a charge of police brutality; he’s just introduced a citizen to the delicacies of his night stick in the bleached-out daylight of downtown LA.
In Oren Moverman’s Rampart, Woody Harrelson plays the city pig who’s rolled in dirt for longer than he can remember. Cruising alone, hardboiled behind his aviators, Dave Brown is a guerrilla of urban sprawl, a master vigilante protecting and serving his own carnal interests. He wears the badge of the LAPD, but he’s working for the other side. “Illegal is just a sick bird, now let’s have some fun.” The dirty cop who prowls the mean streets beyond Beverley Hills? You’ve seen this film before, in LA Confidential, Internal Affairs, Heat, Street Kings, Dark Blue and Training Day. But Moverman and the Dark Knight of film noir James Ellroy have cracked a sluggish genre over its head, and now they’re shaking it down for change. This is 1999, and Rampart is the LAPD division mired in accusations of drug-dealing, coercion, race-brutality and corruption. Dave was the king of the concrete jungle, but now the suits have pegged him as a sacrificial lamb – or maybe a scapegoat – for all of Rampart’s cancerous ills.
He’s being investigated by an investigator from Internal Affairs (played by Ice Cube) and – maybe – a lawyer he picked up (Robin Wright), carousing the line: “You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen…in this bar.” A connected friend (Ned Beatty) is working against him. His nomadic family life – which consists of two ex-wives, both sisters, and a daughter each – are starting to reject his presence. “You’re a dinosaur, Date Rape. You’re a racist, a sexist, a womaniser, a misanthrope and certainly homophobic,” his oldest daughter lovingly tells him. But Dave Brown is a survivor. He’s literate in the institutional Newspeak of his superiors, and he uses it against them. “Every shooting testimony contains inconsistencies. Otherwise you wouldn’t have a job,” he says to Signourey Weaver’s suited police boss. “No plan survives contact with the enemy. I learnt that serving my country as a non-elected pop-up target in an often misunderstood crusade for liberty and justice turned puppet-show for politicians called the Vietnam war.” You could wash in that language and come out smelling like Sharon Stone. It’s pure James Ellroy, laconically drawled by Woody Harrelson. Moverman – working in digital – hangs his camera off Harrelson’s sculpted fist of a face like a timid teenager in love. LA is hazy, close, brighter than a fevered dream. At night, it’s lit up like a pinball machine.
And behind that cowboy mask, we suspect that Dave Brown is grappling with regret and apathy, and objectifying the rot in his life. He’s deciding whether to atone, cut a deal and wear their moniker, or just go down fighting on the crooked ship he built. We expect a denouement, a conclusion, some analysis or meaning, but we’ll never know. This film is way too subtle, way too cool. It’s a portrait of an almost beaten man riding out for his last stand.
Rampart is out in UK cinemas now.
Text: Tom Seymour