The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.

Written by John Bleasdale.

Photo from the article The most recent manifestation of the ‘bad cop’ in American cinema comes courtesy of the crime drama Rampart, starring Woody Harrelson, who, like George Clooney, stuttered a mite at the outset of his transition from television fame to cinema work (White Men Can’t Jump [1992], Money Train [1995]) before finding his groove. Harrelson appeared in a series of films that were spiky with controversy if not necessarily good. Indecent Proposal (1993) was a glossy readers’ wives version of matrimonial what ifs; Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994) had the effect of making us realize that Quentin Tarantino was actually a subtle and nuanced film-maker, and Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996) was an interesting essay on freedom of expression, though surprisingly dull. Harrelson was obviously a man willing to take risks with material even if that material did not always repay his courage. Between The Thin Red Line (1998) and No Country for Old Men (2007) Harrelson the character-actor emerged. Oren Moverman’s The Messenger (2009) gave us Harrelson’s most substantial role yet as the deeply flawed career army man, whose encounter with a young combat veteran severely disturbs his world. What is disconcerting about the film (for more read my Alternate Take) is the inverted way the older mentor Captain Stone is playing a role - the fakeness of which is revealed by the Kid (Ben Foster). His anguish (in true postmodern style) is caused by not having any real cause for anguish.

Also directed by Oren Moverman, Rampart seems set to twist and turn in a similar way. Just as The Messenger subverted the basic structure of many an army-based film, from Officer and a Gentleman (1982) to Heartbreak Ridge (1986), so here is that most common of figures, the bad cop, ripe for deconstruction. After all, bad cops abound with a ‘lady doth protest too much’ frequency. From Quinlan in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) to Inspector Harry Callaghan in Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971), American cinema has featured the bad cop as an elemental figure, a touchstone, at once fascinating and repulsive, but usually more fascinating than repulsive. Though perhaps we should differentiate.

There is the fantasy strong-man, the Coriolanus character who turned up on the silver screen via the far west: a man with a facility for disproportionate but effective violence, little sympathy for civilized values but whose violence (sometimes indirectly) protects those values, though does so by temporarily suspending or violating them. Dirty Harry under-arming his badge into a dirty San Francisco pond is the exact equivalent of Ethan Edward’s walking away in The Searchers (1956). The city/family is saved, life goes on, but without the saviour. The bad cop here is the good fascist, the one we want to come to our rescue but who we will reject publically and disavow politically. The fascist moniker pinned by Pauline Kael onto Eastwood’s man with the shifting names might have seemed overly simplistic and dismissive. After all, the film itself and even its promotional material sets Harry up as a character to be judged and condemned as much as it makes him into a hero. But the sequels and - to be honest - even the first film make it clear that Harry is on our side, fascist or not. Rampart quotes Dirty Harry with the misanthropic defence of what otherwise might look astonishingly similar to racism. Dave Brown hates everybody, he boasts. ‘Spic, wop etc.’ Whereas Harry was contrasting himself with the genuine multi-ethnic and cultural background of San Francisco, in James Ellroy’s (and also Rodney King’s) Los Angeles there is something tired, almost lazy, about the line in the new film. And profoundly unconvincing.

The maverick cop figure loses his fascism as the seventies bleeds into the eighties. Or more accurately, the fascism is retooled and reblended, integrated if you will, into a more relaxed multicultural, slightly comic get-up; but the villains still get blown away, often from multiple angles and in slow motion (cf. Scorpio [1973]): the black fascist cops of Shaft, Eddie Murphy, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence; the working class fascist cops of the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon series. Liberalism sits outside in the police car, or is hidebound and humourless in an office, worried about the mayor. Maybe towards the end of the film, it will join in and blow a terrorist away. The bad cop will be vindicated. The class or ethnic background of the cop is irrelevant; what is significant is the use of violence and the fantasies attached.

The violence of the cops is often mitigated by the sense that the individual cops themselves are damaged, often grieving - Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) sticks a gun in his mouth, clutching a photograph of his dead wife - and this pain is a deposit they put down (occasionally an extra instalment is paid halfway through with the death or wounding of a partner/colleague/Patsy Kensit) for the reckoning to be paid in full by the end of the film. Despite an angry compromised attitude to life, these cops aren’t nihilists, and to prove this they often save suicidal men, with something like contempt.

The shadow cast by the fantasy figure is the villainous bad cop. The bad cop who isn’t being bad to save the community, or being corrupt in the pursuit of innocence, but rather the downright venal, corrupt, destructive and dangerous cop. Harvey Keitel’s Bad Lieutenant (1992) is literally awful: abusive, to both himself and others, hypocritical, using the badge purely as a way of feeding his appetites with impunity and only intermittently interested in serving anything like a community. And yet there is something seductive about his freedom, even from the moral codes he is supposed to uphold. Perhaps the most terrifying scene in the film is when he wakes up on his sofa, surrounding by the pastel décor of his suburban home, with mother-in-law and kids nattering away. His hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, but what a high price that is. He is not the pure villain of Training Day (2001), or Internal Affairs (1990). He is the Catholic, and the best kind of Catholic: the prodigal son who has to wait until he is rooting with pigs before he can return home and seek reconciliation. Nicholas Cage’s version of the same character is Calvinistic, prey to pain caused by his one good act, who then becomes hooked to painkillers as a result of goodness. There is little hope of redemption. By happy chance he might be rehabilitated into society and saved from ignominy but it will not lead him to the path of salvation if salvation is not for him.

Whereas there is still something deeply moral about both Bad Lieutenants, Rampart offers the bad cop of the gaps. Dave Brown is someone who is proficient in legalese and can cite cases to support his actions. He is rough and tough, but he is also smart and evasive. He has his drugs, his booze, his promiscuity and his extracurricular means of supplementing his income (i.e. robbery). The one maverick act he committed - the killing of a rapist - has labelled him with the crime: his moniker is ‘Date Rape’. We are never assured whether this is legend or truth; whether the killing (legal or not) was justified in the way he claims. What we do get is the feeling that the moniker sits with him a little too well. Dirty Harry is dirty in different ways for different people, and so Brown is Date Rape to his cop buddies but a whole different Date Rape to his elder daughter, with whom he has a terrible relationship.

The film sees Dave’s life and psyche unravelling, as a corruption investigation coincides with his own bad luck and ultimately his lifestyle. The pigeons coming home to roost could easily see Brown dead or imprisoned, but Oren Moverman opts for what is fast becoming a cliché in this kind of film: the abrupt and open ending. There have been a spate of recent films which I won’t name because it would be tantamount to a spoiler, that have chosen to forego the final act, but I would date the practice back to No Country for Old Men (2007) - or alternatively, if you really want to, The Iliad. Irresolution can be a way of leaving open various possibilities. It can also be a way of criticising and questioning our need for closure. In the case of Rampart, we are led to believe that the story is so familiar that no more needs to be said. Just as Hector’s death makes the fall of Troy inevitable, so Dave Brown’s estrangement from his family has sealed his fate, taking from him his one shot at redemption.

Whereas other mavericks get to sling away their badges or stride off into the sunset, Dave Brown is trapped in his car, with nowhere left to go.

This Alternate Take was published on March 06, 2012.

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