“This used to be a glorious soldier’s department,” snarls Rampartʻs “Date-Rape” Dave, a beat officer in the police district in L.A. for which the film, set in the late 1990s, is named.
A throwback from a meaner, ostensibly less politically correct law enforcement era, Dave (an inspired Woody Harrelson in his best film performance) is an utterly corrupt cop, with a shameful work record (severe beatings, vanished perps, murky money deals), a shattered home life (two miserable ex-wives and two bitter daughters), and an equally corrupt old police pal who covers up for him. And, oh yes, some of his wrongdoings have been captured on video, embarrassing his department no end. Involved in another legal mess, Dave is fighting being let go–but he never lets go.
How did Harrelson sneak up on us and become one of those actors who just keep becoming better and better? In 2009’s The Messenger, he gave a soulful performance and received a well-deserved Oscar nomination. Now, working with the same director (Oren Moverman) and aided by razor-sharp dialogue by co-writer James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential), Harrelson nails his character so precisely that he’s a fascinating if deplorable figure. This is a character study of the first order.
Aided by such pros as Sigourney Weaver (as an assistant district attorney) and Robin Wright (as an equally cynical law enforcement type), and Ned Beatty as a retired corrupt cop, Harrelson makes an uneven, technique-heavy film shine. As Dave surveils the gang-ridden streets of his beat and “teaches” younger cops how to cheat and cut corners, he fast-talks his way out of every situation–for a while, anyway–as a surfeit of subplots almost swamps the movie.
This portrayal ranks with the great ones–James Cromwell in L.A. Confidential and Nic Cage in the recent re-make of The Bad Lieutenant. There is no overacting here as in Harrelson’s early film roles. He’s a master of discipline–the true center of the movie. This makes it all the more wrenching that Harrelson was essentially overlooked in this year’s Oscars when the DVD screeners sent to the Academy were defective. Rampart didn’t get a wide release, cruelly sinking Harrelson’s chances just as his stock was rising.
Moviemakers in California seem eager to stay away from current corruption pieces in law enforcement. Even Clint Eastwood’s searing Changeling was a period piece with cops covering up for each other. Devil in a Blue Dress took place in the late ʻ40s and Kevin James’ Mall Cop doesn’t count.
At age 50, Harrelson has left TV behind, occasionally slums (Zombieland II is on the way), and is re-writing a play he’s written, hoping to direct the movie version. In the meantime, he’s an A-list movie actor, living the good life on Maui.