In those heady days after “The Messenger,” director Oren Moverman, Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster cooked up what seems — on paper– like a sure Oscar nomination for Harrelson. He’d star in a “Training Day” character study of a bad/good cop set against L.A.’s Rampart division police scandal.
But the movie that came from that idea is a bit all over the place — juggling many themes, many ideas, many layers of personal corruption leavened by a hint of righteousness. And you can’t get a bead on the character because Woody & Co. (James “L.A. Confidential” Ellroy co-wrote the script) are so ambivalent about him.
Dave Brown (Harrelson) is a veteran cop with a chip on his shoulder. It’s 1999, and his Rampart precinct is under siege and under the microscope. Dave could be a poster boy for their troubles — a bit racist, misogynistic, homophobic, but not cartoonishly so.
He has two kids from two different marriages — and two ex-wives — Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon — who still live in the same complex “compound” where Dave can keep an eye on them.
He drinks too much and for some reason has little trouble picking up women on those nights he’s not tumbling into bed with one of his exes.
And he has a nickname — “Date Rape.” The script leaves us uncertain of what to make of that. Dave tells the tale of maybe/maybe not shooting a date rapist some years before, and Dave’s an unreliable witness. But others seem to give his version credence.
When Dave goes Rodney King on a motorist who rams his car, it’s caught on video. And the siege begins. Dave’s life falls into a paranoid spiral. His arrogance with those investigating him (Sigourney Weaver, and later Ice Cube) is buttressed by his knowledge of the law and his seeming media savvy. A Viet Nam vet persecuted and scapegoated by his own department? How’ll that look?
“I learned that serving my country as a non-electric pop-up target in an often misunderstood crusade for liberty and justice turned puppet-show for politicians known as the Vietnam War.”
Very James Ellroy. And so poetic it reminds you there’s no reason this cop would have that riff down pat.
Dave becomes paranoid, becomes overly reliant on a retired cop (Ned Beatty) who seems to have his best interests at heart, no matter what he did. Dave mistrusts the attractive high-mileage lawyer (Robin Wright) who picks him up in a bar, mistrusts the homeless junkie, The General (Ben Foster), and digs his hole deeper and deeper.
His kids love but fear him. His exes are finally tired of his act.
“You’re a dinosaur, Date Rape. You’re a classic racist, a bigot, a sexist, a womanizer, a chauvinist, a misanthrope, homophobic clearly, or maybe you don’t like yourself.”
It’s veering plot means that “Rampart” never stumbles into predictability. Dave is possibly more hateful than we can know, from the script. Harrelson plays him as a wreck barely hanging on to his sanity. But he never tips us off — Dave is a bigot, Dave is trigger happy, Dave is corrupt to the core.
Actors like to say “A villain doesn’t look in the mirror in the morning and say, ‘I’m evil, so what evil can I do today?” But this movie feels too undecided. The movie is so intent on not being “Training Day” that it just isn’t “Training Day” enough.
And that’s why Harrelson, as good as he’s been these past few years, didn’t score his Oscar from “Rampart.”
MPAA Rating:R for pervasive language, sexual content and some violence
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Sigourney Weaver, Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, Ice Cube, Ned Beatty
Credits: Directed by Oren Moverman, written by Moverman and James Ellroy. A Millennium release.
Running time: 1:48