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by Kilian Melloy
Monday May 21, 2012

The Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart Scandal of the late 1990s was such a dramatic and far-reaching event that movies and television have been using it as inspiration and backdrop for gritty cop drama ever since. The scandal inspired the FX original series "The Shield," for instance; now, it's inspired James Ellroy to write, and Oren Moverman ("The Messenger") to direct, a tense and penetrating film, "Rampart," named for the scandal but not really about it.

Instead, "Rampart" is about the kind of male ego that characterizes bad cops. Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) is a 24-year veteran of the LAPD; in that time, he's killed more than a few people, all of whom, he believes, had it coming. His nickname, Date Rape, comes from an early execution: It's an open secret that Brown murdered a man who assailed several women.

Brown himself has a complicated relationship with the opposite sex. His home life is an uneasy amalgam of two failed marriages and the daughters that they produced. Because his two ex-wives are sisters (played by Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon), it almost doesn't seem odd for the household to contain both women, as well as Brown. It's not a harem situation, exactly, but it's close enough to convey a sense of the man as an alpha male suited to an earlier age. Brown would have made for a powerful warlord.

In our modern era, however, he's increasingly an anachronism and something of a bully. When Brown goes ballistic on a motorist after a collision and beats the man, the assault is captured on video and becomes one more embarrassment for the city. Higher-ups played by the likes of Sigourney Weaver and Steve Buscemi, try to finesse Brown into retirement; meantime, in between various dalliances, he falls into an affair with a public defender played by Robin Wright.

If Brown has anyone in his corner, it's a retired cop named Hartshorn (Ned Beatty), who seems to have kept active in a number of rackets. With legal fees and his family eating up his cash faster than he can earn it, Brown turns to robbery, targeting an illegal card game that Hartshorn's tipped him to. Things go wrong; another scandal ignites; and Internal Affairs dispatches an investigator, played by Ice Cube, to get the goods on Brown and bring him down. In his paranoia, Brown becomes convinced that shadowy forces are looking to make him a scapegoat and fall guy in the wake of the Rampart mess. His paranoia mounting, Brown finds his tenuous grip on his family slipping away and the streets he once ruled transforming into a strange and threatening landscape.

Ellroy, author of "LA Confidential," is at home in the City of Angels, and he proves that he can map out and mine the subterranean labyrinths of a man's mind even when the man is arrogant and self-righteous to the point of delusion. (At one point, Brown acknowledges that he might have killed innocents along with criminals, but if he did, he argues, it's because the so-called innocents had a karmic debt to pay. In other words, Brown justifies his actions by viewing himself as an instrument of God.) Moverman's direction relies on some crafty camerawork and lighting (the movie is often shrouded in darkness) to set the mood. The director also relies on his cast to deliver the goods: The performances are often semi-improvisational.

The special features include an audio commentary track and a surprisingly absorbing behind the scenes featurette that examines the film's characters and the choices that went into the production. The DVD also includes a free digital copy of the film.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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