Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Feb 10, 2012 7:50 pm 
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Bad cop going down, very slowly

James Ellroy co-scripted this movie: that says it all. Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster costar, as they did in Oren Moverman's strong if flawed directorial debut, The Messenger, and Harrelson gives a ferocious performance as a bad cop. The style is raw and contemporary and yet curiously dated. This is John Cassavetes making a vérité film noir from hell. There is none of the fun of a film noir, because the bad cop Harrelson plays is too mired in everyday mess to surprise us. Because this is Ellroy, the L.A.P.D.depicted here has corruption and violence deep embedded in its genes. The main character is on a downward spiral, without the sharply etched plotline that makes Ellroy's L.A. Quartet and the film adaptation L.A. Confidential such hypnotic reading and viewing. Nor is there the succession of distinctive scenes that we got in The Messenger. There is a sameness here that wears us down. But the notable cast, Moverman's committed direction, and Harrelson's intensity make this an involving, if ultimately frustrating watch.

David Douglas Brown, the bad cop Harrelson plays, seems to generate one instance of incredible police brutality after another. Brown's out of control machismo violence would be almost laughable if it were not despicable. The characters around him appear to be foundering, because none of them can set a moral standard that shames him. And the movie spirals into a mess of rotating subplots that it rhythmically revisits. There are not enough surprises or reveals here. Brown, embodied by the hard-edged, whisky-guzzling, cigarette-puffing, aviator shades-brandishing Harrelson, drives the movie, but ultimately brings it down. There is too much focus on him, and he has too little complexity.

So if this is definitely Ellroy, it isn't Ellroy at his best. This is because the story, if it were both written and filmed in true James Ellroy fashion, would be much more layered. The title signals that the background is the Los Angeles Police Dept.'s Rampart division, from which in the 1990's, when this takes place, more than 70 cops were charged with acts of unprovoked shootings and beatings, falsifying evidence, framing suspects, stealing and dealing narcotics, bank robbery, perjury, and covering up evidence.

Brown is a Rampart cop, but his one-man case is seen only as a possible distraction from the collective Rampart case, which is referred to only indirectly. Brown is repeatedly described by others and by his own admission as having once cold-bloodedly executed a married man with children known to be a serial date raper. Later in the movie Brown shoots and kills several people. Before that, when a car crashes into his police car he jumps out, unharmed, and beats the black driver nearly to death. This is recorded on film and is all over the TV news. Brown goes before boards and his boss but seems unrepentant. He's been "doing his duty." He's questioned and asked to retire voluntarily by DA Joan Confrey, played with an authentic feel by Sigourney Weaver, who however seems to lack her usual hard edge here because everything bounces off Brown/Harrelson. Later after the two-man killing an Internal Affairs officer is put on Brown's case -- Kyle Timkins, played by Ice Cube. Ice Cube seems more Brown's equal than the others, perhaps because their conflict over racism is one that radiates off the screen. But where are all the other Rampart bad cops? They're lost in the shuffle.

Brown's sexual encounters and so-called family life are another story, in its way more unsavory and messy than his life as a bad cop. A bevy of well known actresses are brought in to play these scenes, which like others are shot with a vérité quality, with a shifty camera, manned somewhat too obtrusively by Bobby Bukowski, often stationed behind big objects in the foreground. This seems at times like Cassavetes and his followers, sometimes like Seventies TV drama. Brown lives, till they become disgusted with him and kick him out, with two ex-wives (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon) who are sisters and who each have one daughter by him, themselves sisters (Brie Larson, who seems a bit old to be living at home like this, and Sammy Boyarsky): this situation itself feels improper and corrupt, and all the females are a mixture of complacency and resentment. Family scenes recur, and one wants to look away, but the existence of this ménage reflects Brown's undeniable charisma and machismo, qualities Harrelson has no trouble radiating. Another interesting but inconclusive encounter with a lady is Brown's ill-advised seduction of Linda Fentress (Robin Wright), a sexy defense lawyer he picks up in a bar. That encounter too recurs, with diminishing returns both for him and the viewer.

As a mentor Brown periodically meets with a former colleague of his corrupt cop father called Hartshorn (Ned Beatty), who eggs him on but then seems to have betrayed him. All this is good James Ellroy stuff, but loses its focus because of the messy plotting structure and the dramatically destructive effect of the unyielding and utterly dominant main character.

Ben Foster is effective (and well disguised) as a homeless war vet in a wheelchair who has seen, or might have seen, Brown commit one of his major crimes, an unprovoked killing of two Latino gang members who raided a high stakes card game Brown was tipped off about by his bad cop sensei Hartshorn. This is what gets Internal Affairs on his case. Where does all this go? Nowhere. And as corrupt as the LAPD being investigated was, it's hard to understand how Brown could be working in uniform again after a brief furlough following the filmed beating. A character who resists change this successfully is ultimately uninteresting, even when he's a gleeful car wreck.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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