The background to Rampart will be familiar to anyone that’s seen the acclaimed TV series The Shield which concerned the widespread corruption in an LAPD unit in the late 90s. Rather than an entire unit, Rampart follows one man, Dave “Date Rape” Brown, a dirty cop caught up in a cycle of violence which leads to his eventual downfall.
Dave already has several suspected incidents logged against his name, all of which he’s managed to dodge due to lack of evidence and his own knowledge of the system, but when he’s caught on camera beating a suspect half to death the jig appears to be up.
Director Oren Moverman and Woody Harrelson last worked together on The Messenger which, despite Harrelson being nominated for an Oscar, took two years to turn up on UK screens. Rampart will benefit from a faster cinema release but a fantastic mesmerising performance from Harrelson is undermined by a thin story and Moverman’s distracting unconventional camerawork.
That Rampart eschews traditional narrative is both its strength and weakness. It’s very much character study. Dave Brown is almost archetypical James Ellroy character: a violent, womanising racist with a sharp incisive mind who longs for the days when the LAPD were “glorious soldiers”. As Brown, Harrelson is constantly compelling and a great mouthpiece for Ellroy’s sharp dialogue – acidly witty and ferociously intelligent but unrepentantly vindictive and deeply unpleasant.
In fact, what is refreshing about Rampart is how it doesn’t moderate its lead character. Dave Brown is a nasty piece of work and he’s shown as such – there’s no romanticisation or glorification of his uglier personality traits, no attempt to excuse his behaviour. When he gets what’s coming to him, it’s oddly not the joy of vindication we feel but pity – ultimately it’s Brown’s inability to change which is his downfall.
While Rampart starts well and has a pacey zip and zing – Brown intimidating a rookie cop into finishing some French fries; sermonising about the good old days; all pin-sharp rapid fire dialogue – it all but burns out in the second and third acts.
While the lack of structure is in some ways appropriate – Brown is certainly cut adrift and in danger of sinking in a tide of debt – it’s leaves the film feeling nebulous and unsatisfying. This is compounded by Moverman’s insistence on odd framing, quick cuts and wobbly camera angles (particularly a scene in which Steve Buscemi and Sigourney Weaver are giving Brown a talking to while the camera pans like it was mounted on a lazy Susan). This is no doubt designed to give a visual and stylistic unease to Brown’s actions, but it actually has the opposite effect – distracting where it should be illuminating and diluting the power of Harrelson’s blistering performance.
So while it’s another great performance from Harrelson (surely a future Oscar winner), Rampart remains a distinctly uneven film that is difficult to recommend.