Undercover LAPD officer Frank Lyga, a white cop, has already shot and killed Kevin Gaines, an off-duty black LAPD officer, in a road rage shootout. LAPD officer David Mack has already been arrested for his involvement in the robbery of a Bank of America branch. LAPD officer Brian Hewitt, who was part of the Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH), an “elite anti-gang unit,” has already beat a gang member named Ismael Jimenez in the chest and stomach making him vomit blood. Rafael Perez has already been found to have stolen cocaine evidence. A task force to investigate the LAPD’s Rampart Division’s rotten conduct has already been launched.
It is 1999 in Los Angeles and Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) is one of the most corrupt cops in the history of the Rampart Division.
Rampart is an engrossing character study of an addict, whose addiction to thuggishly patrolling the streets of Los Angeles has caught up with him. It is directed by Oren Moverman, who directed Harrelson in The Messenger (2009). It is written by James Ellroy, who wrote LA Confidential (1997) and Dark Blue (2002).
The way Brown lights his cigarette, the sadomasochistic way in which he stands by and orders a female officer to eat her french fries and the pleasure he gets from speeding his car into a crowd of people he believes to be hoodlums—only to stop quickly and open the doors to try to sweep one of them up on some trumped up charges, which he would make up on the spot—leads us to understand there is nothing Brown thinks he can’t get away with doing.
He has such a condescension for women. He happened to marry two women who were sisters (Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon). He has daughters. He has a patronizing attitude toward each of these females.
Although it appears he has divorced both of the sisters, they all live together. He talks to the women he once married but only when he wants sex. He cares for his daughters but only when they are disgusted with him.
Brown appears to have survived a task force investigation into the division. He’s an officer, who will proudly wear his racist views on his sleeve. He has a nickname—”Date Rape Dave”—because he is believed to have killed a man for putting a date rape drug in a young woman’s drink. (At least, that’s what he claims.)
There is nothing that can stop Brown until he gets into a car crash and is caught on camera brutally kicking and beating the man, who crashed into him, with his baton. The video plays over and over again on the evening local news. The incident evokes memories of the Rodney King incident that is still fresh in the minds of all residents of Los Angeles.
The division wants to know what it will take to get rid of him, but he wants to go to trial and embroil the city in more scandal. He says if he is forced to retire he will have his own show on Fox News inside of a week. He does not care if he no longer has a future in the division. He is addicted to the power that comes with being an LAPD officer and he will do anything to keep that power, even if that involves having secret meetings with a retired LAPD officer (Ned Beatty) so he can get help surviving this scandal.
As District Attorney Bill Blago (Steve Buscemi) says, “The only thing that’s wrong here is that a camera caught him doing police work.” The implication, of course, is that Brown would still be out doing police work with no problem if the press had not gotten a hold of the video. There would be no scandal. Brown would claim the man he brutalized had been resisting arrest and the police department might face some fallout from the news of alleged brutality, but, without the visceral imagery playing on loop on the evening news, there would be no accountability for Brown.
This reality makes Brown the perfect example of why police officers fear the proliferation of cameras in American society. It makes him the personification of why a police force would oppose a citizen’s right to record. Police departments let officers commit a certain level of assault and battery when in the line of duty. Intimidation and harassment of photographers, videographers, the press or average citizens with cameras is regularly employed by officers in society to hopefully ensure that officers like Brown do not end up on video and plunge an entire police department into a scandal.
Additionally, Brown is a character who once served in Vietnam (at least that’s what he claims). He says he served his “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.” The sacrifice he believes he made may be a convenient excuse for his conduct or he may be serious. He likely suffers from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), like most soldiers who return from war. The brute force which he metes out when doing his job may be something he is addicted to because he served in war.
Is Brown what happens to men who go to war and then are given a position in law enforcement as a reward for what they have supposedly done for their country? Is society guilty of helping to create Brown? Is he a kind of blowback for a society that is becoming more and more militaristic?
The film intelligently lets us into the life of an amoral and sadistic man, one who has had a safe haven in the Los Angeles Police Department but now the department can offer him shelter no more. He may avoid justice in the judicial system; but he has, and will, continue to face poetic justice because the world has seen his true character and there is no escape for him.