' ' Cinema Romantico: Rampart

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


LAPD officer Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) is standing around his cop cruiser with a young rookie he’s showing the ropes grabbing a bite to eat. Dave notices the rookie hasn’t touched her fries. He doesn’t eat much himself, we are told, but he does not care for people who waste food. He demands she finish the fries. No, no, no, not demands – he forces her to finish the fries. Dave Brown has a code. He never explains the nature of this code, perhaps because it is unexplainable or perhaps because he does not quite understand its specifics himself. Perhaps it is innate, but he adheres to it rigorously and will follow it right down to the end of the line.

Corruption in the LAPD is an ongoing cinematic tradition (and a real one too as “Rampart” is based in part on the real life Rampart Scandal of the mid-90’s which is mentioned here and there throughout the film) and there are faint echoes here of 2001’s “Training Day” which won Denzel Washington an Oscar for playing a corrupt L.A. cop. But whereas Denzel went for operatic, Woody goes for introspective. And whereas the screenplay for “Training Day” still took time to try and explain its main character's twisted motivations (“Sometimes you gotta have a little dirt on you for anybody to trust you”), Woody is never afforded any times out to give advisements and he never asks for absolution. He is – to borrow a time-worn phrase – who he is. He is who he is when the movie starts. He is who he is when the movie ends.

He cruises the sun-blotted streets of L.A. like Travis Bickle With A Badge. He seems convinced of his own self worth even if others are not, like his two daughters, one of which he had with each of the two sisters who he married separately and who now live next door even though they often seem wary of his presence. Women surround him, whether it’s the occasional lady he picks up at a dark bar and then ignores or the defense attorney (Robin Wright Penn) with problems of her own and whom Dave senses is up to no good from the get-go even if he ignores his own warnings. The Assistant D.A. (Sigourney Weaver) is on his case, too, for having busted up a date rape less in the manner of a law-abiding police officer than a vigilante and now for having been caught on tape beating a not-totally innocent man to within moments of his life.

In the context of the film, however, Dave is not headed for a trial date nor a well-staged shootout. His reckoning is all internal, his trajectory a straight line downward. It’s sort of sickening to watch, not unlike the scene in which Dave visits one of those underground havens for deviants that you wish only existed at the movies and finds himself high on god knows what shoving food in his mouth like Pizza the Hut.

Harrelson is so strong this, underscoring and alluding to everything so often just with his eyes and his body language, that he cultivates in our minds his character's entire life lived up to the start of the movie. It is the sort of life where one spends all his days digging his own grave. And for the 90+ minutes of "Rampart" we are watching as Dave finally climbs into that grave and has the dirt shoveled on top of him.


Andrew K. said...

Hmmmm (that's me thinking while I read your very thought provoking piece.)

I'm having such a déjà vu experience reading this because we seem to respond to the film in such a similar fashion, even mentioning some of the same moments (for different reasons, though).

I will say, I don't think he's really digging his grave. I like your quote, "He is who he is when the movie starts. He is who he is when the movie ends." which becomes the movie. The opening and closing shots (love them and the way they're presented) tell us, he's just driving around in circles, he's not even (un)lucky to dig a grave rest, just constantly rolling that stone up the hill like Sisyphus.

It's a film like its character that doesn't try to win you over, and it really works for me. (And, really, Harrelson just crackles.)

Nick Prigge said...

"Just constantly rolling that stone up the hill like Sisyphus." Interesting take. I can see it.

You know, now that you mention the way the film opens and closes it kind of parallels with "Drive's" opening and closing a bit, doesn't it? Two characters left to wander the darkness of L.A.