Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) is uncharitable, misogynistic, nihilistic, a racist, a chain-smoker, a raging alcoholic, and a bad father, but Rampart, the movie he’s thrust into, is astonishingly dull. Helmed by Oren Moverman, it explores the state of the LAPD circa the late ’90s but, despite what its title suggests, the film isn’t about the infamous Rampart scandal — an umbrella term for the widespread corruption that occurred inside the Division’s anti-gang unit (offenses ranged from unprovoked shootings, planting of evidence, narcotics possession, bank robbery, and perjury) — but instead it’s set whilst the events were still current. Written by the director alongside James Ellroy (author of the critically-acclaimed noir novel “The Black Dahlia”), the story chronicles Officer Brown, who, caught on tape beating a suspect, finds himself at the crux of a vicious scandal.
Things are further complicated by a volatile relationship with his children, who were fathered by two sisters (played by Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon), having Internal Affairs Agent Timkins’ (Ice Cube) probing into his life, and a deviant sexual relationship with a mysterious attorney named Linda Fentress (Robin Wright), whom he meets in a bar.
Yet, through thick and thin, Harrelson’s incredible and, although he’s been in the business for decades, he remains underrated. Headlining in Rampart won’t change that, but in it, he ensnares himself into his character’s psyche — a storm of frustration, lust, and drunkenness — becoming the movie’s primal force. However, while this fever dream has a slew of great performers — including Ben Foster, Sigourney Weaver, and Steve Buscemi — they don’t make it any less of a bromidic experience.
Despite the talent attached, the narrative remains a flop. It has no a dramatic build and no cinematic peak. Meanwhile, entire scenes are dedicated to exploring sides of the Brown that could’ve been explained in a few lines. Furthermore, it’s full of inconsistencies. In the time the filmmakers spent circling around his supposed paranoia, they could’ve better explained how Dave, after being exposed of police misconduct and brutality, could be back at his post within days. It’s unrealistic that the force would risk backlash to comfort an officer nicknamed “Date Rape.”
As far as characterization’s concerned, Ellroy and Moverman try to make Brown as offensive as possible, insisting he be thrown under the bus. They pummel him and leave no redeeming qualities, disregarding the fact that the strongest stories have characters that the audience, in some way, can relate to. Their unexplained bias quickly becomes distracting and, ironically, they make a case for an anti-hero who deserves fairer treatment.
On his sophomore picture, Moverman is showing early signs of a schizophrenic career. In his 2009 debut, “The Messenger,” the director handled a dark and timely subject matter with both confidence and sincerity. In Rampart, working with many of the same performers, he introduces an awkward visual style. While his flamboyant shots are meant to highlight Brown’s mental state, they aren’t as rewarding as the simplistic aesthetic of his freshman effort. Is Moverman trying to avoid being boxed into one technique? Or did he want to separate himself from the clichés that accompany “bully cop” films and comparisons to classics like “Bad Lieutenant”? Either way, the elements here aren’t the right ones.