Rampart - SideReel Review
With his debut feature The Messenger, writer/director Oren Moverman fashioned a moving work that was equal parts Hal Ashby and Bob Rafelson. He reteams with Woody Harrelson for his follow-up Rampart, but it’s a new collaborator, crime writer James Ellroy, who turns out to have the biggest influence on the finished film.
Harrelson stars as David Brown, an L.A. cop as compromised and corrupt as you can imagine. In addition to facing another round of internal-affairs investigations stemming from his activities, he gets caught on video assaulting a black citizen. As his legal bills mount, he resorts to another ill-gotten scheme in order to swindle some bad guys out of cash, but ends up in deeper trouble. With nobody he can trust, David continues down a self-destructive path that includes sleeping with a lawyer investigating him.
There really isn’t all that much plot in Rampart, and what there is matters far less than David’s actions and behavior. Harrelson inhabits the role, turning David into one of the scariest law-enforcement officials in modern cinema. He never has any moments of self-doubt or even basic conscience -- he’s a creature who exists solely in order to keep existing. That this movie works as well as it does is a testament to Harrelson’s talent. He’s a magnetic actor, always capable of keeping us on edge -- we never know exactly what he might do -- and this ability is on constant display in Rampart. Regardless of the situations David gets himself mired in, his cagey verbal skills (he was almost a lawyer) and his seeming eagerness to physically intimidate whoever is confronting him work together to buy him just a little more time, which he promptly uses to self-destruct a little more. It’s a fearless performance, bereft of vanity or any attempt to ingratiate himself to the audience.
What’s missing from the movie is a dramatic arc. David is a conflicted, mostly bad guy at the start of the film, and while we get a glimpse of how far he’s willing to slide -- how difficult it will be for him to ever redeem himself -- there isn’t a moment where he changes or even recognizes what he’s doing to himself. The situation may get increasingly dire, but his outlook never alters, and while there’s certainly a dark purity to the picture’s vision, there’s also a repetitive sameness that dilutes any sense of tragedy.
James Ellroy has spent his career writing about corrupt cops, especially in the City of Angels, and David Brown represents one of his most uncompromised creations. A normal film like this would set up a conflict in which the corrupt cop usually breaks the rules in order to nab the bad guys, and to its credit Rampart avoids this cliché. But by concentrating so strongly on the decline of a single high-strung, pugnacious, self-annihilating officer, the movie doesn’t offer any context at all. Harrelson is brilliant and David is a remarkable character, but the film ends up being just a character study; that’s disappointing, since Moverman had the raw materials to go deeper into topics such as the intricacies of race and law enforcement, as well as how our culture allows reckless people into positions of authority.