- Rated R
- Buy the BD
All photos © Millennium Entertainment
Reviewed by Bob Westal
ampart" is in no way a docudrama about the real-life police corruption scandal that rocked Los Angeles in the late 1990s. Nor is it a biting and complex cop drama along the lines of "The Shield," which itself was originally entitled "Rampart." From director/co-writer Oren Moverman ("The Messenger") and novelist turned first-time screenwriter James Ellroy ("L.A. Confidential," "The Black Dahlia"), and set in 1999, this "Rampart" is mostly a 1970s-style character study focusing on the disintegration of a bad apple cop.
Woody Harrelson stars in a pretty unquestionable tour de force performance as Officer Dave Brown, aka "Date Rape Dave." With a nickname like that, you know Dave is trouble. The good news, however, is that Officer Brown is not a rapist; the bad news is that there's no other good news. A Vietnam veteran with a flair for the offensive, numerous on-the-job infractions, violent tendencies, and a drinking problem to boot, he is also beset with a massively complicated personal life. He lives with a pair of sisters who are, in turn, his ex-wife (Anne Heche) and his estranged current wife (Cynthia Nixon), as well as his daughters from both marriages. He hits up both women for sex while also sleeping with a number of others, including a very smart but obviously damaged defense attorney (Robin Wright). After he is caught on videotape beating a suspect who – perhaps randomly, perhaps not – rammed his police vehicle, it's increasingly clear that Dave's a one-man scandal machine. His exploits just might be the perfect distraction from the larger debacle brewing at Rampart.
This is a movie that I can recommend only with some qualification, and I have to confess to some disappointment as I had some fairly high hopes for "Rampart." The first 3/4 of Ellroy's "L.A. Quartet" just might be my three favorite crime novels, and I also loved his memoir, "My Dark Places.” I'm also an admirer of Oren Moverman's prior effort, "The Messenger." Starring Harrelson and Ben Foster as soldiers tasked with informing families about the deaths of service people in Iraq, the realism employed by Moverman made him seem like an odd fit for Ellroy, but his apparent gift for extracting fascinating and complex performances was promising
On "Rampart," Movermen adds a bit of L.A. grit and flash, but he seems so uninterested in the ordinary pleasures of even the most hard-edged procedurals that I wonder what drew him to work with James Ellroy at all. Whatever Ellroy's faults and quirks as a writer, he has never seemed afraid of a little genre fun. At the same time, Movermen can't be faulted for timidity. He has been criticized for some bizarrely self-indulgent choices, including an arty view of the back of his actors' heads during one fraught scene, but at least he's not playing it safe. His film's nearly non-existent narrative drive is a far worse problem.
I think it's generally agreed that the best and most enjoyable thing about "Rampart" is all the pyrotechnics emanating from the very interesting object that is Woody Harrelson's brain. James Ellroy is a master of making us care about bad men who would be the villains elsewhere and nearly turning them into heroes. Harrelson has a bad little boy quality which immediately engages our sympathy and explains why this brute would still be loved, however intermittently, by a number of intelligent women. Speaking of love and smart women, Harrelson's best scenes are with Brie Larson ("The United States of Tara," "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World") in what turns out to be the film's other central performance as Dave's teen lesbian daughter, maybe the only person on the planet he both loves and respects.
As good as she is, Larson is just one of several notable supporting players. In addition to Robin Wright's odd, intriguing turn as a duplicitous attorney, we have Sigourney Weaver, her usual 100 percent credible self as a higher up understandably out to get Dave. I would have enjoyed seeing more of Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon as Dave's sister ex-wives; there's some backstory missing there.
The male costars shine a bit less. Even so, Ned Beatty's national treasure status is in no danger as Dave's gloomy mentor in the ways of being a bad cop, while Ice Cube is believable as an Internal Affairs detective. Surprisingly, it's the reliably brilliant Steve Buscemi as an officious mayor who seems mostly like an afterthought. Harrelson's "The Messenger" co-star Ben Foster, also a "Rampart" producer, has an affecting cameo as a hooch-swilling disabled war veteran.
"Rampart" also benefits from some very strong supporting talent behind the camera. Specifically, production designer David Wasco, best known for his work with Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, and "The Messenger" cinematographer Bobby Bukowski give the film plenty of visual depth. The crew nicely delivers the near-mandatory views of gritty anti-Hollywood L.A., right down to a nearly obligatory scene at the original Original Tommy's burger stand on Beverly and Rampart, a noted police hangout as well as a great place to get a chili burger.
Oren Moverman is a bold and admirable filmmaker but not someone with a particularly playful sensibility, and I think that's a problem. There is a difference between a movie about soldiers tasked with delivering unbearably sad news and one about a corrupt, trigger happy, but oddly lovable cop embroiled in a web of crime and debasement. It may be that, even at his most reflective, James Ellroy's work requires a bit more stylization and a bit less method-actor emotionality than Moverman is interested in delivering.
Single-Disc Blu-ray Review:
Indie films like "Rampart" are never usually rich with special features, but although Millennium's Blu-ray release only contains two extras, there's not much more that really could have been included aside from the deleted scenes that director Oren Moverman talks about in his audio commentary with director of photography Bobby Bukowski. In addition to the informative commentary track, which also covers working on a limited budget and other production tidbits, the Blu-ray includes a 30-minute behind-the-scenes featurette that offers an in-depth look at the film's ensemble cast and filming.