Woody Harrelson shines in this disappointingly over-directed character study.
The sun-frazzled dirty cop character study Rampart starts as the life of disgraced LAPD veteran Dave Brown (played by Woody Harrelson) is entering free fall. After a long career of nihilistic brutality in the Los Angeles Police Department, he has been caught on videotape violently beating a man in the street. This is all occurring during the fallout from the notorious Rampart scandal in the 90s, where the LAPD’s anti-gang division were implicated in years of corruption. With all the political heat falling on the police force, it’s not a good time for an officer to be seen liberally dispensing beatdowns, and the powers that be (including an excellent Sigourney Weaver as a tough, stern superior) start pushing for Brown’s retirement to try and save some face.
Brown’s misanthropy has also infected his home life, and he shares two daughters between two sisters he consecutively (not concurrently, as Brown has to remind his youngest) bedded. “Date Rape” Dave, as he is cheerfully known amongst his peers due to the suggestion he may have murdered a serial date-rapist in cold blood, is here shown to be an obsessive philanderer. After slyly asking both of the sisters whether he can sleep with them after dinner, Dave is rejected and almost immediately heads out to a bar for a one-night stand. Woody Harrelson, who is smoking in nearly every shot of the film, specialises in this sort of character – a damaged man concealing a deep darkness. He really sinks his teeth into the role, picking out the right notes of madness in Brown, and his descent into insanity and paranoia is played with powerful conviction.
Harrelson has worked with director Oren Moverman before on the Iraq War miserycore gem The Messenger (for which Harrelson earned a well-deserved Academy Award nod), and Moverman clearly knows how to get the best out of him. Supporting Harrelson is essentially the largest number of cameos in recent memory: Steve Buscemi, Jon Bernthal, Ice Cube, Cynthia Nixon, Anne Heche and Ned Beatty all turn up, sharing about fifteen minutes of screen time between them. Moverman even manages to sneak The Messenger alumni Ben Foster into a small role as homeless man, and you don’t recognise it’s him until at least an hour in. This is Harrelson’s show, to be sure, and his performance dominates the film.
The film was written by Moverman with the crime novelist James Ellroy, even though Rampert leans towards Moverman’s directorial sensibilities more than it does to Ellroy’s abrasive, breakneck style. The film is shot compulsively in close-up, faces filling the screen to make it feel like the walls are closing in on Brown. The saturated colours and natural lighting of Bobby Bukowski’s cinematography give the impression of something burning out.
Ultimately though, Rampart suffers from not having any kind of clear resolution at the end. After dragging us through the car crash of Dave Brown’s life and pushing Brown to the point where his sanity is on a hair-trigger, the film just sort of unceremoniously ends. It’s hard not to feel cheated that we don’t get to see the terminal moment the film was clearly building towards. Rampart is an effective film, with a terrific lead performance, but it doesn’t feel weighty or substantial enough as a crime drama without giving Brown what’s coming to him. Otherwise the whole film is just build-up with no climax, and given how pitiless Overman’s portrayal of “Date Rape” Dave is, it feels like it could have done with the match finally lighting the tinderbox.
You can read more from Jonny over at his awesome games blog, Fraudience.