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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Rampart' gives us mysterious character in Harrelson's Brown

RAMPART

(R)

3 stars out of 4Who would have thought that when the TV series "Cheers" ended in 1993, Woody Harrelson would be the only one of the cast members to find lasting success in feature films? In all fairness, Harrelson's cast member John Ratzenberger has done quite well providing animated voice-over performances (he's the only person to contribute to every Pixar movie), but that's not quite the same as being the lead in front of a camera.

Lacking what many might consider to be typical leading man looks, Harrelson gravitates toward dangerous ("The People vs. Larry Flynt," "Natural Born Killers") or damaged ("Indecent Proposal," "The Messenger") characters with an occasional comedy ("Kingpin," "Zombieland," "Wag the Dog") thrown in for good measure.

In "Rampart," Harrelson stars as David Brown, a second-generation uniformed L.A. police officer and Vietnam veteran whose ideas of law enforcement techniques are firmly rooted in the past. Much like the Russell Crowe character in "L.A. Confidential," Brown isn't above crossing the line to get a confession or killing a suspected rapist (an incident that has earned him the dubious nickname "Date Rape").

"Rampart" and "L.A. Confidential" were both written by James Ellroy, a hard-boiled disciple of Mickey Spillane whose entire resume consists of stories about L.A. crime and dirty cops. It's a razor thin micro-genre that comes with many structural limitations but Ellroy never fails to deliver characters that are deep and complex.

The title of the movie refers to not only a rundown section of L.A. but a nationally covered police corruption scandal that took place there in the late '90s. Although loosely based on actual events, Ellroy and co-writer/director Oren Moverman (also "The Messenger") chose to make theirs a completely fictional story with the Brown character representing some of the 70 or so police officers involved in the scandal.

The Rampart neighborhood is the perfect place (at least initially) for a cop like Brown to wield his heavy hand. He can get away with bending and even breaking the law because the law-abiding residents and business owners respect him and he gets results. The filmmakers make the point early on that if everything was done by the book here, the crime would be impossible to control. It's not ideal and it's far from legal, but it keeps order.

During a situation that mirrors the Rodney King incident, Brown is videotaped beating a suspect. What the later TV audiences and his bosses don't see (but we do) is what leads up to it. Recognizing this as a chance to toss the public a sacrificial lamb, get rid of the problematic Brown and quell the brewing scandal in the ranks, Brown's immediate superior (Sigourney Weaver) and the local district attorney (Steve Buscemi) lean on him to publicly apologize and/or resign.

Brown's reaction to this ambush is easily the best scene in the film and alone is worth the price of admission. Although he didn't finish law school, Brown knows his legal rights and is precise with his choice of words when offering his blisteringly concise and prophetic retort. Moverman's circular camera work during Harrelson's monologue is beyond ideal and when it's over, you'll realize you've just witnessed one of the finest single scenes in cinematic crime history.

When the filmmakers stray from the on-the-clock Brown and into his off-hours life, the story looses some of its wallop. He's shown bedding down two women (one of them an attorney played Robin Wright) who too quickly fall for his too-forward, ultra-blunt shtick.

For most of the film, Brown lives under the same roof with his two ex-wives (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon) who just so happen to be sisters. In an effort to offset the squirm factor for this far-fetched sub-plot, the writers have Brown explaining to one of his daughters (Bree Olson) that the marriages were separate, not concurrent. All of it pushes the boundaries of believability too far and takes the sheen off of the film as a whole.

Some might have a problem with the film's ambiguous non-ending, but there is closure of sorts. It also keeps open the possibility of a sequel and this is one of those very rare instances where finding out more about such a mysterious and richly conflicted character would be entirely welcomed. (Millennium)