107 min., dir. by Oren Moverman, with Woody Harrelson, Anne Heche, and Ned Beatty
Corrupt cops, Los Angeles, Rodney King, and conspiracies: all the ingredients of a modern James Ellroy story. Even though the trials and tribulations of main character David Brown are no stranger to the Ellroy archetype, his moral damages can be projected on a wide array of worldly characters. This slight departure for Ellroy and the restrained anger of Woody Harrelson’s performance are the only things keeping Rampart from falling apart. While it has a few redeeming qualities, as a whole, Rampart is as flawed as they come.
David Brown is a cop caught in the middle of a changing professional and societal atmosphere, yet everything he does keeps him grounded in the past. Known throughout the force as “Date Rape” (for his alleged col-blooded murder of a man he knew to be a serial date rapist), Brown prides himself on his tough, take-no-shit demeanor, his Vietnam War record, and his outspoken diligence to stand up for women. When he becomes the center of a new scandal, in which he beats a man who accidentally rams into his car, Brown continues to dig himself into deeper trouble while playing the victim at every turn.
At first glance, it’s difficult to get past the world that writer James Ellroy has steeped himself in. Since abandoning his mid-1900s themed works, he has concerned himself with true crime stories and LA cops around the time of the Rodney King beating and the LA riots. Typically, though, those stories follow the old-school cop who always played against the rules, championing to bring down a system of corruption, even at the cost of his own well-being. Rampart, however, concerns itself with a cop who can’t adapt to the new rules of law enforcement and, in effect, destroys his own life.
What works for me about Rampart is that it explores the world of the victim – not someone who was actually wronged, but someone who does anything in their power to claim everything they do is right, even when it isn’t – someone who rails against the world when confronted by their own poor decision, only to stand by their twisted morals and recant their perceived triumphs. There’s a strange feeling of joyful acceptance I gain from watching this man try over and over again to plead his case, when everyone (both in the movie and watching) can tell it’s pure bullshit. This character model is out there in the world, and I haven’t really seen a perfect portrayal of the resulting downward spiral until now.
What makes Rampart worth seeing is Woody Harrelson. The brilliance of Woody Harrelson is that in the real world he’s an archetype for alternative lifestyles – Harrelson is such a space cadet that any role he portrays is miles apart from his real persona, making even Woody from “Cheers” a triumph in acting. In Rampart he exudes a calm aura of anger in every scene. Even if the calmest scenarios you can feel hatred seep through his skin. He’s a master at portraying damage in a human shell.
All of this being said, Rampart is a shaky film at best. A sluggishly slow pace is treated with odd technical camera moves that are meant to symbolize Brown’s state of mind. Those sections are placed sporadically through the film and constantly fluctuate in style. It’s hard to get a handle on, and mainly gave me motion sickness above all else. Dropping in a mother lode of cameos just adds to the distractions.
Rampart is a film that, at its high points, shines. The issue is that those high points are like shards of a broken window that can’t be pieced together. At times, the storytelling is incoherent, like the characters thought process. This was likely done on purpose; unfortunately, a broken man is interesting, but a broken film is not.