RAMPART reunites writer/director Oren Moverman and star Woody Harrelson, who collaborated on 2009's The Messenger. This time out, Moverman enlisted crime-fiction titan James Ellroy to co-write the screenplay. I'd argue that nobody writing today has a deeper fascination with corruption and the male ego than Ellroy, so he seems like a perfect fit to help the movie's protagonist, "Date Rape" Dave Brown, live up to the film's hyperbolic tagline: "THE MOST CORRUPT COP YOU'VE EVER SEEN ON SCREEN."
It's a fun tag (and classic Ellroy grandstanding), but the character doesn't quite live up to the hype. Which is not meant to be dismissive: Harrelson's Brown is undoubtedly corrupt. He's a thug, a killer, a serial philanderer and a bigot. He considers the LAPD a soldier's department and imagines himself on the frontlines of a conflict no one else can see. He drinks too many martinis, shakes down pharmacists for uppers, downers and Viagra, and is apparently anorexic. He also cohabitates with his two ex-wives, who happen to be sisters, and their two daughters (one by each sister). It's a weird living arrangement, especially when compounded by an off-putting casual sex pact. So, yeah, Brown's pretty dirty, but I've seen worse (Bad Lieutenant, for example, or Ellroy's own L.A. Confidential).
Brown is also tremendously intelligent and articulate, often to his own detriment. Despite his failed attempt at becoming an attorney, he values his smarts above anyone else's. This intellectual arrogance leads him to believe he can beat the system, whether by nonpayment of income taxes, out-lawyering the state in its numerous charges against him or covering up his ongoing criminal enterprises.
This is a complex and demanding role. Harrelson is gaunt and exhausted throughout, and we get glimpses of Brown's concealed pain as he stomps drunkenly through the L.A. night. Rampart is almost exclusively a character study, a travelogue of one man's trip to the very bottom, and Harrelson's performance is nearly flawless, as are those of the supporting cast, particularly Ben Foster, Sigourney Weaver and Ned Beatty. The aesthetic, with its slow-burn close-ups and tracking shots set against the piercing sunlight and neon of L.A., is counterpointed by jittery jump-cuts -- an apt visual representation of Brown's inner turmoil.
While the movie is smart and competently assembled, something keeps it from coming together. I'm as big an Ellroy fan as anybody; I'll line up to read/see whatever he puts his name on. Rampart has his fingerprints all over it, and the Los Angeles depicted here -- with its bureaucracy and its undercurrents of race hate and misogyny -- is all his. And "Date Rape" Dave is an Ellroy archetype all the way down to the ground, which may be the problem: Despite all the film's achievements, it plays like an orphaned arc in an Ellroy novel. Ostensibly, the protagonist's story is an allegory for the LAPD's 1990s corruption scandal, but we only get hints at that larger conflict. As Brown becomes more and more unhinged, his connection to the larger world, or even to the culture of his troubled department, is never fully explored.
As a story about one man's place in time, Rampart hits most of its marks, but I found myself wishing for something more, some additional facet of the bigger picture to make me care about what happens to "Date Rape" Dave. R. 107m.
21 JUMP STREET is a pretty straightforward ‘80s-style action-comedy, which is a tricky thing to pull off these days. But this one is a success. Star Jonah Hill was reportedly instrumental in shepherding this project through the development phase (he also co-wrote the story), and I've got to give him credit for his fortitude. A reboot of the teen-cop TV action drama seemed an iffy proposition. But the filmmakers have reimagined Jump Street as a hard-R comedy that's completely self-aware without being annoyingly post-modern.
Hill and Channing Tatum (who's equally funny, surprisingly) lead a cast packed with comic talent. Rob Riggle is a standout, as usual, and Ice Cube really sinks his teeth into the role of easily angered Captain Dickson. Ellie Kemper is hilarious as a teacher with inappropriate feelings for Tatum's character.
There isn't much point in rehashing the plot, as it's pretty standard undercover drug squad stuff. But the relationship between the two leads is built in an honest, convincing way. The comedy is consistent throughout, the action scenes are compelling, and the insecurity inherent in the high school experience is surprisingly real. And there's a fun cameo near the end.
This isn't a game-changer, but it's well-above average. Hopefully this heralds a change for the better in mainstream action-comedy. R. 109m.
THE HUNGER GAMES. Based on the first book in Suzanne Collins' mega-selling young-adult trilogy, The Hunger Games stars Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone) as one of 24 teenagers who, in a dystopian near-future, are forced to compete in a televised death-match. PG13. 144m.
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN. Based on Lionel Shriver's gut-wrenching novel, this film explores the contentious relationship between an ambivalent mother (the great Tilda Swinton) and her strange son, whose heinous crime leaves a community reeling. With John C. Reilly. R. 112m.
The Arcata Theatre Lounge is all about living, breathing humans this week -- stand-up comedians, musicians and business leaders. Next week promises a return to the cinema.
ACT OF VALOR. Active-duty Navy SEALs star as active-duty Navy SEALs in this fictionalized account of Navy SEALs on active duty. Paid for with tax dollars. Shouldn't we get in free? R. 101m.
THE ARTIST. Mostly silent, black-and-white homage to cinema's mostly silent, black-and-white early years. Winner of five Academy Awards including Best Picture. PG13. 103m.
GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE. Nicolas Cage stars in this moronic, action-packed sequel centered on Johnny Blaze, a motorcycle-driving stuntman who sold his soul to the devil. PG13. 95m.
JOHN CARTER. A hunky Civil War vet gets transported to Mars, where, with the help of some four-armed green dudes, he must save a princess. PG13. 132m.
JOURNEY 2: THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND 3D. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson leads a family-friendly adventure to the isle of 3D effects. Jules Verne barfs in his grave. PG. 94m.
THE LORAX. The tree-hugging Dr. Seuss character now shills for SUVs and flapjacks. What a sellout! Also, this movie is not good. PG. 86m.
PROJECT X. You know the party is off the hook when the angry dwarf gets stuffed in the oven and the drug dealer grabs a flamethrower. Sigh. R. 88m.
SILENT HOUSE. A young woman becomes trapped inside her family's lakeside house, which is, like, totally giving her the silent treatment. Uh, hello? Cerr-reepy! R. 85m.
A THOUSAND WORDS. A magical tree keeps Eddie Murphy from speaking, but it doesn't stop him from making this, perhaps his worst move ever. PG13. 91m.
THE VOW. After a car accident, a woman loses all memory of her husband, so he has to woo her anew. PG13. 104m.
WANDERLUST. Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston play a Manhattan couple who join a free-love commune in this comedy from director David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer). R. 98m.