James Ellroy and Woody Harrelson can't quite make this work
LA 1999. At a time when cops are under siege and political correctness is the new watchword, officer Dave Brown (Harrelson) is a man out of joint, a wallowing dinosaur in a hypercritical age. In the wake of a beating that’s caught on camera, Dave’s life starts to spiral out of control.
Rampart comes to screens from director Oren Moverman, best known for writing and directing last years The Messenger, also starring Harrelson and Rampart bit parter Ben Foster. The Messenger was an effective subject undone by some overly plain plotting and Moverman has better raw material to work with here but it never quite gels.
Partly that’s because the expectations heaped on the film are quite high – chiefly due to the involvement of crime writer extraordinaire James Ellroy. He penned the story and worked with Moverman on the screenplay and the character of Brown, his nihilistic world view and staccato eloquence are certainly are in keeping with his work. It’s the story that feels underdeveloped, sadly making the film more Street Kings than L.A. Confidential.
At least the central character is compelling – Brown is a brutal enforcer of the law on his own terms, coming up against the bureaucrats who want nothing more than to keep their heads down until the Rampart scandal blows over. He further complicates his life with a labyrinthine personal life – cohabiting with two sisters who he married ‘consecutively’ and fathered different children by, and also pursuing other women in his spare time. As if that’s not enough, there’s a rumour in the ether that Brown tracked down and killed a known rapist, a case that continues to haunt him.
Harrelson embodies the character of Dave Brown completely, committing to the unusual speech patterns, complicated dialogue and casual brutality. He’s a man who literally out of place, who doesn’t understand how to wield justice without a baton or a gun. The character isn’t far from a clichéd Western gunman, confused by the slow creep of civilisation and Harrelson is compelling on screen.
Moverman has attracted plenty of star names for only his second feature – including Ned Beatty, Sigourney Weaver, Steve Buscemi, Robin Wright, Anne Heche, Ice Cube and Foster, who turns up quite randomly as a particularly decrepit hobo. But much of the cast is underused, apart from Wright who gets a few useful character beats. Moverman further dilutes the effect of these performers through some odd stylistic choices – a conversation between Harreslson, Weaver and Buscemi is shot with a camera that constantly rotates, moving people out of the frame as they speak and forcing some awkward editing. It’s no doubt meant to give a sense of the overlapping nature of the dialogue in that scene but it’s a failed experiment.
As the film progresses, there’s a sense of clutter on screen – more objects fill the frame and areas are blurred – probably to signify Browns decent towards further instability. But it never feels effective and by the time he’s visited a sex club, complete with an all-encompassing red light and brain melting music and editing, the symbolism has lost all sense of subtlety.
Rampart is not a terrible film but it does feel like a character in search of a story. Harrelson continues to impress as a dramatic actor but we never get a sense of what point the filmmakers are trying to make about police corruption, while the ending fails utterly to deliver any answers.