Dave "Date Rape" Brown is one bad cop.
In "Rampart," a movie named after a division of the Los Angeles Police Department that became notorious for corruption in the late 1990s, Brown becomes the personification of everything that went wrong.
While the supporting cast is full of standouts, the reason to see the movie is the jaw-dropping performance by Woody Harrelson as Dave Brown. Harrelson fell just shy of the Oscar nominations list this year, but this is some of the best work of his career.
Harrelson was nominated once before working with director-screenwriter Oren Moverman in "The Messenger," a 2009 movie about a Marine whose duty is to notify next of kin that their loved one has died in the line of duty.
That movie ended on a note of hope and healing.
But with "Rampart," co-written by James Ellroy ("L.A. Confidential"), expect little in the way of tender mercies. Dave wasn't built for that. He even treats informant pals (Ben Foster, as a wino; Ned Beatty, as a retired cop) with brutal cruelty.
In fact, he seems devoid of redeeming qualities. Opening scenes establish that he's racist, sexist, violent, homophobic, a womanizer and totally corrupt. He justifies himself by saying he hates everyone equally.
His nickname comes from rumors that he murdered a rape suspect in an act of vigilante justice, though nothing was ever proven.
His living arrangements are also bizarre. Two ex-wives, who are sisters (Cynthia Nixon, Anne Heche), live in neighboring homes. Each has a daughter by him. When neither ex will let him into her bed, he strikes up a sexual relationship with a defense attorney (Robin Wright) hopped up on drugs who likes things kinky-rough.
Now, just a few years after the Rodney King beating, Dave is videotaped beating a suspect. The footage is looped on television for days.
Then he's involved in a deadly shootout at a robbery scene, and his story is fishy.
The police department's internal investigation unit is all over Brown, led by an officer (Ice Cube) out to nail him and a tough assistant D.A. who's had enough (Sigourney Weaver).
But as his past closes in on him, Dave has a certain swagger, a sense of entitlement that makes him think he can just keep lying, claiming self-defense, framing others, giving answers to investigative tribunals like a veteran politician.
Blackmailing a pharmacist for pills helps him ease the pressure, as he goes on a hallucinatory bender.
A couple particularly memorable scenes find his daughters and ex-wives at last deciding that they don't want Dave in their lives anymore.
Moverman uses hazy cinematography to reflect not only a hot, smelly Los Angeles summer but the moral indifference of a man who's empty on the inside, even as he becomes increasingly isolated.
What is the point of this grueling character portrait? I'm not sure. No explanation is given as to why Dave is like this. Maybe that's just how some people are.
But Harrelson, who lost 25 pounds for this lean, mean, taut role, is something to watch.
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