The seduction begins with an image: Their toned body towers over you on a highway billboard. They glare at you with come-hither menace from a subway panel. They beckon from a TV spot amidst the smash cut flurry of bodies dancing in coitus, dancing in death. Their seduction is the visceral thrill of violence, the fetishization of the gun. For those who simmer daily in the sour stew of their impotence, the images and the image-makers pulse with pheromones that reward the consumer with a fleeting thrill and the creators with consumer cash.
But wait! The actors and actresses on those ad campaigns want you to know that in their very public private lives they campaign against firearms and deplore violence. They are proponents of peaceful discourse in a liberal democracy. Pay no attention to the guns, explosions, rapes, cracked skulls, CGI blood-splatgasms. That’s just fantasy or satire or a roller coaster cinematic thrill ride. Stay in school, kids, don’t do drugs (like we do), violence is wrong (but it sure looks sexy), and always vote Democratic.
This is the schizophrenic disassociation of Hollywood cinema. The hand opens with intellectual condescension and closes on a thick wad of bills. Concern and compassion are the daisy in the rifle barrel: It’s a striking image, but the motherfucker still fires and it’s aimed at you.
Rampart presents the viewer with Date Rape Dave (Woody Harrelson), an LAPD office so monikered thanks to his famous (and alleged) execution of a serial date rapist. In 1999, in the wake of the Rodney King scandal, the LAPD is under tremendous public scrutiny thanks to allegations of brutality, often with racial minorities on the hurting end of the baton. Our hero is caught on tape beating a man who moments before crashed into his police car, doored Date Rape Dave, then booked away in classic “feets don’t fail me now” fashion. And so the once untouchable cop begins his inevitable descent into the mire of Bad Cop Behavior (™).
Date Rape Dave is presented with a veritable checklist of behaviors that filmgoers are conditioned to expect from a cop on screen (and a Vietnam veteran, no less, so surely he is well versed in brutal activities). The filmmakers proceed to tick off each box in turn:
Torture of a suspect
Routine use of excessive force
Disregard of the law as a set of liberal shackles that only serve to protect the “bad guys”
Mirrored aviator shades
Rather than a nuanced or subtle portrait of a flawed human being, we are instead given Harrelson as the Bald Lieutenant. Here: he is swaggering through obligatory perp confessions achieved through beating. Here: he is staggering into an LA sex rave under the influence of a narcotics cocktail and ample testosterone that all women in the film initially find irresistible and later find repugnant. As in the recent film Shame (2011), Our Hero is the great seducer of women. His barroom charm leads immediately to the bedroom, sometimes involving the sucking of ticklish little piggies. Unlike in Shame, however, the viewer is not subjected to shots of Woody Harrelson’s nob (which, I’d imagine, probably looks much like Woody Harrelson himself). The Date Rape Dave character boils over in a cauldron of virility, tears, sweat, guilt, cursing, racism, and overwhelming machismo. And yet the viewer is meant to feel disdain for him despite the adrenal rush of his antics and the cleverness of his sardonic and self-serving wit. This is the liberal fantasy of the renegade cop grafted in true cinematic Frankensteinian fashion through all the stereotypical parts we’ve seen on TV and movies, but with the added paranoia of a dweeby kid still reeling from a nickel bag pot possession bust where Bad Officer Mustache made him cry.
In Rampart the viewer is a fly on the wall, a hovering voyeur who witnesses the increasingly dire proceedings through handheld camera work: views from the back of a character’s head; furtive, ill-lit glances from both a safe distance and seething and sweaty close range. We are like a ghost at the table, unseen by the actors in the great tragic play while we tiptoe around them as they commit suicide by drowning in their own irrevocable decisions. It is a conscious evocation of the cynical cop dramas of the 1970s that later informed television series such as Homicide, The Shield, and (in its highest form to date) The Wire.
And in the end … there is no end. Rampart joins the ranks of the cult of the ending-less movie. As in the recent indie hit Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), Rampart has no real ending. There was a point where I realized there’d be no resolution and I just waited for the moment where something would be happening then the screen would go black with a “directed by” credit followed by a groan from some audience members and the sound of thoughtful chin scratching by others. I will always be among those who demand, “Well, what happened next, huh?” If I’ve been presented with characters in conflict, I know I can’t see the entire course of their lives (unless it’s the end of Six Feet Under), but I expect the filmmakers to give their movie an ending and to tell us how the situation they contrived concludes. I don’t want to use my imagination to think up my own ending. That’s what you’re paid for, monkey, so have the intellectual vigor and creative vision not to write yourself into a box and, instead, write a fucking ending to your film.
Rampart is not a movie that overtly glamorizes violence as in the more generic and audience-friendly product that comes to mind in the scenario I presented at the start of this review. Some of the performances are excellent (I thought the character of Dave’s daughter Helen was quite effective) and it all makes for compelling viewing. Still, for all its pretenses to the contrary, Rampart largely operates with the same driving momentum customarily at work in more mainstream productions. We thrill through the aggression (a fair bit of it sexual) of the film’s protagonist while being told just how awful it all is, and don’t for a moment think it’s just Date Rape Dave, as the entire culture of law enforcement is just a collection of bloody-minded bigots (or so the movie will have us believe). There’s a version of this movie out there called Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) that effectively pees all over the absurd cinematic transgressions of the archetypal “bad cop.” Fortunately — and to its great credit — that film never takes itself seriously. With Rampart, the tone is very serious and, as as result, all the more absurd in the end.
Rampart opens today in Philly-area theaters.