Witnessing a campus police officer casually pepper spraying a non-violent row of seated Occupy protesters like he was weed-treating his flower garden might make Newt Gingrich happy, but regular people recoil at that sort of thing. Why, then, is it so entertaining to watch weed-treated Woody Harrelson -- playing the generically named Dave Brown, a dirty, old-school, amoral Los Angeles cop -- engage in the same kind of crazily excessive force? And why do we want to see him do it over and over?
Well, for starters, we're in the audience of a movie theater watching a film by The Messenger's Oren Moverman, co-written by Moverman and Los Angeles's literary crime god James Ellroy. And we're at a safe remove from the volatile character in question. But we're also in on Dave's secret: he's actually got the soul of a righteous vigilante and an ugly charisma that allows his colleagues to happily nickname him "Date Rape Dave" because he once allegedly murdered an alleged date rapist, premeditated-style. He's the horrible cop you hate to love, like Bad Santa with a badge.
Date Rape Dave rolls around a grimy Los Angeles in his squad car, pretty much doing as he pleases, roughing up suspects, beating them into bloody pulps with his nightstick, bar-crawling to pick up whatever women he can find to put up with having sex with him. He's verbally combative, hard-headed and he thinks he's going to win this one. But it's all coming apart. He was videotaped, possibly set up, on his last suspect assault. The lawyers are coming after him. He might be the department's chosen fall-guy to take the heat off the rest of the Rampart division, who are already engaged in a fictionalized version of the real life, widespread, police corruption scandal that dogged them in the late 1990s. But he's not going down without a standoff.
Nothing's good at home either. Having fathered two children with two sisters (Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche), both of whom live together and are doing their best to get him out of the house, Dave's estranged from his children as well. According to his teenage daughter, he's "a classic racist, a bigot, a sexist, a womanizer, a chauvinist, a misanthrope [and] homophobic," but Dave differs, stating in one scene with Ice Cube: "I'm not a racist. I hate all people equally."
Even his retired buddy Ned Beatty isn't much help when the walls begin to close in: "You could just stop beating people up" is all the advice he gets. So this is a man on a downward spiral. Harrelson commits fully to the unshowy depravity and low-boil rage and director Moverman won't pass judgment, choosing instead to surround his officer with even more more barriers, more crime and more downhill slide. No, it's not "fun." This is the kind of movie where you wind up feeling sorry that everybody has to squint into the harsh Los Angeles sun all day, where good and bad don't mean much, where there's nobody to root for and where nothing's going to change, especially not the anti-hero.