The animus toward police brutality reaches a fever pitch during periods of social unrest. While aggressive force has long been used to quell labor protests, the moving image made a substantial difference in putting a face on extreme police tactics. The record of anonymous police in riot gear facing down unarmed protestors takes on a new dimension when it's witnessed away from their heated environments.
[Editor's Note: This review was originally published prior to the film's awards-qualifying run late last year. It opens in limited release this Friday, February 10.]
That continued last week with reactions to the appalling use of pepper spray by a UC Davis cop on harmless student protestors. Viewed millions of times on YouTube, the incident faced an instant, deafening reprimand.
By way of apparent serendipity, the opening of the gritty cop drama "Rampart" this week — in limited release, for an awards-qualifying run — addresses this topic head-on. The second feature from "The Messenger" writer-director Oren Moverman stars Woody Harrelson as a rough-minded police officer set in his cruel ways until he's exposed by an unflattering video showing him beating of an unarmed criminal. Lt. John Pike, the UC Davis officer currently on suspension, may want to check this one out for research.
Harrelson's character is never sympathetic, but Moverman's screenplay makes it clear that the man has deep convictions about his behavior. A veteran of the LAPD with 24 years' experience, he goes by the moniker "Date Rape" Dave due to allegations that he murdered a business partner for committing that very act back in the '80s. Date Rape Dave refuses to the accept the notion that any higher authority mandates his vision of justice. "Everything you learned at the Academy is bullshit," he tells a wide-eyed new recruit in the opening scene. "This is a military occupation."
Partly inspired by the real-life Rampart scandal of police misconduct that afflicted the LAPD in the late 1990s (and set in 1999 to reflect that heated climate), "Rampart" is co-written by crime writer James Ellroy as a messy, disorienting noir, and shot by cinematographer Bobby Bukowski with an unsettling degree of realism. Using an improvisatory method built around Harrelson's fiery performance, Moverman — showing incredible range in jagged contrast to the understatement of "The Messenger" — foregrounds Date Rape Dave's commitment to a lost cause.
When he faces an interrogation from an equally fierce administrator played by Sigourney Weaver, she puts it to him straight: "The tape shows you brutally beating a man almost to death." He fires back with a different slant: "A lot of cops would've shot the guy and got a medal."
Date Rape Dave's increasingly dumbfounding attempts to rationalize his behavior provide the angry engine of "Rampart." The polemics are brilliantly enlivened by Harrelson, whose presence gives you an idea of what a real-life Dirty Harry might look like. Relentlessly pursued by an African-American investigator from the district attorney's office (Ice Cube), Dave doesn't mince words. "I am not a racist," he says. "I hate all people." And he adds a horrific postscript: "I'm just doing my job."
Nobody doubts Dave's allegiance to his duty, but the claustrophobic nature of Moverman's filmmaking, the apocalyptic feeling of a world always on the brink of caving in, explains just how tenuous Dave's understanding of that duty has become. An old confidante offers an obvious alternative: "You could just stop beating people up," he says. Dave only hears the negative: "I don't stop to see if there's a camera in my way when I do the people's dirty work."
Dave believes, as many deluded officers have, that law enforcement officials must sustain an implicitly antagonistic relationship with society. It's a perception he feeds on with parasitic intensity. To his superiors, he asks: "Of all the rotten cops out there, why are you after the one guy who gets it?" It's a question with no tangible answer, underlying the conundrum facing countless real cops who must have asked it before, or one day will.
criticWIRE grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Millennium Entertainment doesn't have a huge track record for releasing films like this, and the violent, unlikable antihero (as well as an ambiguous ending) may hurt word-of-mouth. Then again, Harrelson has already garnered plenty of awards season buzz, which may help elevate the film to solid business when it opens wider in January.