A movie this great shouldn’t be marred by an inconclusive ending. Rampart recalls the 1999 scandal of corruption within the LAPD police department, interlocking a fictional story about one cop who might have been set up to take the fall. But he is a very wicked and despicable human being to begin with. This is Woody Harrelson’s “Bad Lieutenant.” I am, of course, recalling the great Harvey Keitel performance of that 1992 title about a very hellbent NY cop. This new film, by talented young filmmaker Oren Moverman (“The Messenger” with Ben Foster and Harrelson was his debut two years ago), is nearly equal in the ranks and so is Harrelson equal to Keitel.
Immediately, there is something dysfunctional about Harrelson’s character, often referred to as Date Rape Dave. The moniker refers to an incident years ago when he deliberately shot a man accused of date rape. His home situation is jarringly unusual. He lives next door two ex-wives who are both sisters, and in tow, two young daughters. Following a typical dinner, after each of “exes” rejects his sexual invitations, he goes out on the prowl. He is able to fuel his charm and libido with alcohol. His nights are full of one-night stands.
Dave gets into new trouble. A motorist rams into his police car while out on patrol. The motorist acts in contempt for the officer and tries to run away. Dave catches him and beats him to the point of needed emergency medical attention. Dave’s unrestrained use of his baton is caught on video. The whole video smells of a deliberate trap. But it doesn’t mean that Dave isn’t guilty. He refuses an offer of early retirement with severance pay from the D.A. office.
Job suspension and legal problems cause what Dave says is “money hemorrhaging.” How he deals with correcting his financial situation turns out to be as evil as anything I’ve ever seen in a bad-cop movie. Absent of a single flicker of remorse, Harrelson maintains bug-eyed and stone cold for the film. If you stick around long enough however he demonstrates one aspect of human compassion, a small pocket deep within his persona. He has heart strings that go out to the very people who reject him. I’ll go out on a limb and say it’s one of the twenty best performances by a male actor of the last twenty years.
But why did it short-change an ending? It deserved a great harrowing ending that you find in a masterpiece, like say, “Taxi Driver.” Ambiguous endings are great for philosophical films made by the likes of Lars von Trier, but when it comes to gritty real experience movies, there shouldn’t be a void left for obtuse interpretation. I suppose I could guess that Ice Cube, as an Internal Affairs investigator, isn’t going to stop until he gets his way. Or perhaps Dave will continue to self-destruct in far more lurid ways left to your imagination.
The screenplay, by James Ellroy and Moverman, is of otherwise first-rate intelligence. This is the material that reminds one of early Scorsese, with Woody Harrelson as walking time bomb Dave Brown is as great here as DeNiro or Keitel in their prime. The performance won’t be forgotten. Robin Wright Penn, Cynthia Nixon, Anne Heche, Sigourney Weaver and Steve Buscemi co-star.
Note: After three viewings where I have been endlessly fascinated, I am no longer bugged by the ending and find it now to be an inevitable conclusion. The film deserves a 5 star rating. It’s a testament to its power that years after having seen it, “Rampart” continues to trouble and mesmerize me.
112 Minutes. Rated R.
STREET DRAMA / CHARACTER STUDY / DOWNHEARTED
Film Cousins: “Prince of the City” (1981); “Colors” (1988); “Bad Lieutenant” (1992); “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans” (2009).