Rampart faces the age-old dilemma where the lead performance is better than the film itself. This is, perhaps, Woody Harrelson’s best performance, but he’s stuck in a narrative that’s never in a big hurry to get anywhere. Just when you think it’s about to come to a dynamite resolution, it backs off, leaving the viewer unsatisfied. Besides Harrelson, it’s a fairly by-the-numbers corrupt cop piece spruced up by second-time director Oren Moverman’s (2009’s The Messenger) beautiful, art-house style behind the lens.
Set in 1999, Harrelson plays Dave Brown, a Vietnam-vet-turned-cop who’s been on the force for twenty-four years. His jurisdiction, the Rampart division, is under fire for police brutality and a prior incident, in which Brown may or may not have killed a date rapist in an act of vigilante justice, has placed his head first on the chopping block. It also doesn’t help that he’s been video-taped beating a man who plowed into his cruiser. Determined to find out who has set him up, Brown begins his own investigation.
The screenplay, by Moverman and cop writer extraordinaire James Ellroy, really piles on the Brown character. He has a miserable home life (the woman he’s married to is his second wife, with the first being her sister – who lives in the house!), he’s a cheater and sex addict, and commits blatant acts of police brutality. But the talky screenplay never really lets the rest of the film bust loose. Brown spends the bulk of the film talking to various characters, from his boss (Weaver) to a lawyer who may or may not be investigating him (Wright) to a DA worker who’s looking to put him away (Cube). What we’re left with is a procedural that’s difficult to get completely invested in.
Harrelson is extraordinary in this role. Even with his character’s mean streak and personal flaws, he’s not a completely unlikeable person. When he finally expounds all of his sins late in the film, you almost feel a bit sorry for him. Harrelson has always had a commanding screen presence, and he owns this film. The beefed-up supporting cast is excellent, particularly Wright as the troubled attorney and a virtually unrecognizable Ben Foster as a wheelchair-bound vet who frequently seeks help from Brown.
Rampart has its share of powerful moments and a career-defining performance from Harrelson, but the story and its resolution will leave many unfulfilled. The film is outstanding visually, as Moverman brilliantly captures the dirt and grit of Los Angeles. He has a bright future and is definitely a director to watch. He just needs a tighter screenplay that truly seduces the viewer with what’s at stake.
Note: For more information regarding the actual Rampart scandal of the late 1990’s, check out Wikipedia.
Studio: Millennium Entertainment
Length: 108 Minutes
Rating: R for pervasive language, sexual content and some violence.
Theatrical Release: November 23, 2011 (NY/LA) / January 27, 2012 (wide)
Directed by: Oren Moverman
Written by: Oren Moverman & James Ellroy.
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster, Anne Heche, Ice Cube, Brie Larson