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Blu-ray Review: Rampart

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Rampart stars Woody Harrelson as a corrupt cop who is finally caught abusing his power. The film reunites director Oren Moverman with cinematographer Bobby Bukowski – who also worked together on The Messenger – and features an all-star cast including Sigourney Weaver, Steve Buscemi, Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, Ice Cube, Ben Foster, Robin Wright and Ned Beatty.

The Movie

Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) is a Los Angelas cop, working in the Rampart division. He’s of veteran status, and by this point in his career has his beat well mapped, and walks around with a swagger to suggest he’s earned it. And if he hasn’t earned it he’ll take it anyway. He’s built up a little world where he imagines himself as this hero cop who is doing the best he can for his family. His family consists of two ex-wives (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon) and as many daughters, and they all live next door to each other in order to keep this little world turning. But when Brown gets caught on video using excessive force on the job, it starts to unravel what he’s built up for himself. His arrogance and failure to realize that he’s done anything wrong eventually makes things worse, and in an attempt to cover up his misdeed, his abuses of power beget even more sins. And he is no longer able to keep all of them under wraps.

The actual word “rampart” is obviously an allusion to his precinct, but also highlights his isolationist and self-preservation instincts. He has built up his job and family as a buffer against the reality of who he really is. As long as his upstanding, imagined life is still maintaining its facade, he actually believes himself to be doing ok. This is regardless of the fact that he habitually clings to his vices of drugs and one-night-stands in singles bars. Yeah, Dave Brown has it all together.

Actually, Dave Brown is an asshole. He uses his cop and “protector” status to justify using and abusing people, substances, situations, you name it. Not only does he belittle co-workers (and superiors) on his force, but his bigoted action towards minorities and those he considers in the way doesn’t win him any friends. It’s not much of a surprise that he has two failed marriages, complete with kids, who don’t want much to do with him either. But as unlikeable as he is, or has become, there’s another side to him that occasionally wants to surface. He has genuine affection for his daughters, and those moments with them offer the most he has to give in terms of decency. And there are glimmers where those cracks in his rough exterior seem to make some inroads into his soul. But what little is left of this side of him also seems like it’s dying, and taking him with it.

The challenge with a movie like Rampart is that it is more about a character study than a plot. There is an underlying story, but it’s mainly serving to highlights the depths of this flawed individual. He doesn’t serve the story (Dave Brown would never do that), it’s definitely the other way around. And so the viewer must be attuned to this type of storytelling, where loose ends don’t tidy up and redemption may not be achieved.

Video/Audio

Rampart delivers impressively on the video front. Colors are rich and varied, and mined for more than just their aesthetics. Likewise, light and shadow are pitched at extremes, and the encoding handles everything expertly, all the way to almost subterranean black levels. The mostly handheld nature of the film means that focus can occasionally stray, but generally in an unavoidable manner. But all of these elements are captured with careful detail and there’s just not much to dislike about how well this looks on Blu-ray.

The audio comes through in a strong Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track, and receives ample opportunities to flex. Brown’s world is one that seems constantly in motion, and we’re taken from inner-city street chases to night clubs to a beach-side rendezvous at will, where ambient and effects noise thoroughly surround us. But the quiet claustrophobia of watching him trapped with his thoughts in a hotel room are juxtaposed nicely against the din and chaos. At all times, the lossless track is strong and clear, the latter especially impressive because of all the outside dialogue scenes.

Bonus Material

The movie comes with an commentary track featuring director Oren Moverman and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski. The duo offer an absolutely fantastic glimpse into their process for Rampart and some of the visual storytelling elements that might not be as obvious the first time through. In addition to being excited about their project, the pair are very well-spoken and strike an excellent balance of technical detail and thematic intent with their discussion.

The only other supplemental item is a deftly labeled “Featurette” (SD, 30:04). This is about half and half, between standard electronic press kit fluff (“Working with so-and-so was a real joy/challenge/opportunity”, circle one) and something a bit more revelatory. Most of the more interesting tidbits come from the director or cinematographer, and are covered more fully in the commentary track.

Conclusion

Rampart offers a unique character study on a personality type that is unfortunately not all that unique. There are echoes of Dave Brown all around us, and the film gives an unflinching look at how far under the surface their attitude of corrupt indifference to almost anyone but themselves runs. The replay value of character studies might not be there for you, so a rental would probably be the right entry point for most. But a commanding performance from Harrelson, as well as some striking visual direction, makes this a solid recommendation.

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About David R Perry