One of the first lessons we learn as children is the policeman is our friend. When we grow up enough to extend our experience beyond the close examination of our parents they want to make sure we always know there is an adult we can implicitly trust. This is strongly reinforced by just about every show we watch on television depicting the intrepid hero as the blue clad officer of the law. For the vast majority this paradigm is rock solid in its veracity but unfortunately there is one significant flaw in the composition of any constabulary force; it recruits its members from the murky pool of humanity. As such there will always be some self serving members of species that manage to get past the meticulous psychological screening procedures and become members of a modern metropolitan police force. It is a fairly recent trope in film and television to show bad cops as the center of a story. there has always been the one off episode were the heroic lead cop roots out the bad one and brings him top justice but typically the criminally oriented officer is rarer than fond in real life. Cable series like ‘The Shield’ and films such as ‘Prince of the City’ exploded this long held tradition so that the crooked cop can be accepted, at least as the premise for a story. In the nineties one police division in Los Angles was discovered to be the center of a fairly substantial number of criminally inclined officers; The Rampart division. This was the basis for the gripping ‘F/X’ series, ‘The Shield’ about a squad of detectives fundamental as bad as the criminals at large. Once this hit the news of this crooked group hit the news outlets Rampart became synonymous with the bad cop. Ironically Rampart was the location used to depict one of the most pro police series ever on television, Jack Webb’s ‘Adam-12’. More recently it lent itself as the setting for a taut crime drama aptly titled ‘Rampart’. This movie focuses on the fallout that was precipitated by the exceptionally public scandal. Such corruption is terrible for public trust but in retrospect it certainly makes for exciting entertainment.
Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) has made his life’s work being a member of the Los Angeles police force most recently in the much maligned Rampart division. The environment afforded by that assignment permitted a far greater degree of latitude in the pursuit of his duties. In fact they went illegally beyond anything proscribed by the law. On the streets he was not the friendly police officer our parents and teachers diligently taught us about. His methods were draconian, his own brand of justice dealt out according to his whim with cruel efficiency. His personal is as unconventional as his policing style. He is father of two children, one by each of a pair of sisters, Barbara (Cynthia Nixon) and Catherine (Anne Heche). From his own perspective Brown considers himself a good cop. Certain that the current state of the justice system is inadequate, impotent in dealing with the growing ground swell of crime he convinces himself that his direct, frequently brutal means of law enforcement is the only realistic way to effectively handle street crime. This tack taken by co-writers James Ellroy and the film’s director, Oren Moverman gives a bit of moral latitude to the persona of the bad cop. Like many dictators he began his reign convinced he was acting in a fashion beneficial to the people under his charge. The scope of his dictatorship may be measured in a matter of city blocks but it was absolute.
The first thing you are bound to notice about this film is the method Moverman employs as filmmaker. He appears less concerned with motivation than the cause and effect sequence that can overrun people in positions of authority. He eschews the tradition need to find answers and provide explanations. This film is a point of view through the perspective of a man caught in a time, place and set of circumstances largely out of his control. He also paints Brown with an unforgiving brush; he is overtly a racist and he is a lifelong misogynist. This attitude is deeply engrained in his personality and consistently supported by his divisional peers. In 1999 the beleaguered division had survived televised riots and a rapid disintegration of public opinion. The film offers am intimate view of a historically significant point in time.
This is not the first time Moverman has directed Harrelson. In Moverman’s initial time as a director in ‘The Messenger’ he brought Harrelson to an Academy Award nomination for ‘Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role’. Here Harrelson is almost unrecognizable from the affable ‘Woody’ on the iconic TV series, ‘Cheers’ Moverman appears to have the knack for enticing the most intense performances possible from this amazingly versatile actor. He also obviously has the intrinsic ability that transcends telling a story to picking the audience out of your living room and placing them in the moment, a witness to the events as they unfold. This movie conveys that degree of immediacy to the viewer that in emotionally intense.
Some might not appreciate the pacing Moverman selected for his movie. It is slow, not at all what we have become accustomed to in a police drama. This movie glides along drawing you in like immersing yourself in warm water. The reason it works so well is this was never intended to be an action flick. This is a movie that sets out to covey a case when order and duty are systematically disrupted on a sufficiently large scale to destroy the confidence of the public for those normally sworn to serve and protect. Unlike the typical mold for the rouge police officer Brown is deliberate, not a man spun out of control. He could have gone on business as normal if not for the media focusing on his division. This is quite different than what you have come to expect but well worth it.