Rampart is another ‘bad lieutenant’ film, this time set in Los Angeles in 1999, as the LAPD experiences the fallout of the Rampart scandal.
Dave ‘Date Rape’ Brown – the moniker coming from his alleged murder of a suspected rapist and one that he hates – is an LA cop. He is tough, ruthless and confrontational and, after footage of his beating of an out of control driver makes its way onto the evening news, he becomes the police department’s scapegoat. After a string of, as Brown sees it, claims from “Rodney King wannabes” and increased media pressure, the LAPD is desperate to move shift the spotlight away from the on-going Rampart investigation. Brown’s becomes the media’s whipping boy and finds himself increasingly without friends, becoming ever more suspicious that the department, and, maybe, everyone else, is conspiring against him.
The film is entirely hinged upon Woody Harrelson’s performance and, largely, stands up because of it. Though Harrelson was much more fun in The People vs. Larry Flynt, his performance here may just be his best yet. Though director/co-writer Oren Moverman may focus on Harrelson a little too much at the expense of practically everything else in the film, Rampart remains a strong and well-made film anchored by a surprisingly subtle performance.
However, while Harrelson might keep the film afloat, Rampart sags awkwardly elsewhere. The story is rather uninspiring, tracing as it does the inevitable fall from grace of a dirty cop with unsympathetic higher-ups on one side and a family that has had enough on the other. Co-written by James Ellroy, who has always been upfront about the ‘for the money’ nature of his work for the movies, the film does retain a degree of comical perversity and a somewhat multi-faceted narrative, but for every element that works, there is something that doesn’t. Moverman casts the minor roles (read every role except Harrelson’s) with a series of recognisable faces, which undercuts the drama and feels oddly like name-dropping. Worst of all is the fact that the film has no idea where and how to end, offering a collection of possible endings before just stopping. Admittedly, it is all the better for not going through the motions of cleanly wrapping up what is an impossibly troubled situation, never, as a result, becomes ridiculous or distancing. That said, the film ends without any real conclusion, finishing in a manner that feels completely arbitrary or, even, accidental, as if a final reel went missing.
The film is nevertheless powerfully atmospheric, not unlike We Need To Talk About Kevin, which also spited its story flaws with several scenes in which the sheer confusion, fear and self-loathing of a character is palpably brought out by the film’s camerawork, editing and some great acting. Rampart does manage to get inside its character’s head, but it is difficult to get swept up in a character that, though convincingly played, is such an archetype. Herzog’s recent The Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call: New Orleans sacrificed nuance and believability to present a grim and hilarious caricature of the dirty cop, one that probably marked the end of that character, just as spoof spaghetti westerns marks the end of that cycle by the 1970s. As a result, Harrelson’s dirty cop feels somewhat archaic, an anachronism from a 1980s straight-to-video action film.
Moverman’s film is well made and has a great central performance, but it remains an unfocussed film that doesn’t seem to know exactly what it wants to say. It also feels like a film that is hopelessly out of time, with Dave Brown’s line that he isn’t a racist because he hates everyone equally (lifted all-too-noticeably taken from the now over forty-year old ‘Dirty’ Harry Callaghan) feeling like the final nail on the coffin for the 'bad lieutenant' film.