Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) is an LA cop in 1999. Confident and brash, he doles out his own brand of justice on the bad guys, doing whatever he sees fit in order to get the job done. A quick-talker, nothing sticks to him, not even his alleged killing of a rapist that earned him the nickname “Date Rape”.
But one day after his car is hit by another, he is filmed dealing out a brutal beating on the other driver. With the police force already rocked by the Rampart Scandal, Brown becomes a scapegoat and finds out that, even for him, there are situations you cannot talk your way out of.
Rampart is written primarily by James Ellroy, the novellist known for his terse style and gritty crime stories. Ellroy’s most successful dalliance with film was 1997’s L.A. Confidential, a stylised adaptation of his 1990 period noir novel. But Rampart is a very different beast.
The Rampart Scandal hit in the late-90s with 70 officers of the LAPD Rampart Division accused of corruption and misconduct. Many would be punished, with five ultimately fired. Rampart could be viewed as an indictment of the kind of police officer that would be involved – a self-serving individual who sees themself as above the law and above reproach. Interestingly, Ellroy has publically described himself as steadfastedly right-wing and an ardent supporter of the LAPD. The script here, however, paints quite a different picture.
The film is very much a character study. It studies what sort of a man could be responsible for something like the Rampart Scandal or the Rodney King beating. Dave Brown maybe be a fictional character, but he is drawn with careful precision by Ellroy, co-writer and director Oren Moverman and Harrelson. We see his home life and his work life.
At home, Brown lives with his ex-wives (who are also sisters – played by Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon) and his daughters – one from each wife. At night, he frequents bars seeking casual sex, his only real confidant being a retired cop named Hartshorn (Ned Beatty), an former colleague of his father. At work, he is a strutting peacock of a man, cocky to new recruits, brutal to suspects and celebrated by his fellow officers.
Harrelson is in every scene of Rampart and turns in a career-best performance. Frightening, charismatic and oddly sympathetic, he shows Brown at his strutting best and then, as things fall apart, he essays fallen arrogance. Brown’s confidence turns into paranoia as he lashes out, seeking someone to blame – anyone but himself.
The edgy acting performance is perfectly complemented by the shooting and directing style. Everything is handheld, using practical lighting, so it feels almost like a documentary. As the story progresses, cinematographer Bobby Bukowski shoots Harrelson more in shadow or with objects in the foreground obscuring him, or with sunlight washing him out. The result is a blend of performance and capture to depict a man being destroyed by problems of his own making.
As a character study, Rampart is terrific. However, the film has a critical flaw in that, once the downward spiral is established, there is little more to offer. We simply watch events play out in a predictable manner. We know things are going to unravel for Brown and that he is not going to simply brush off his problems this time, so the interest is sucked out of the film as it feels as if the audience is a step ahead of the story at all times.
Rampart is a frustrating film. A brilliant central performance, some wonderful supporting turns from the likes of Sigourney Weaver and Tone Loc and deceptively clever filming cannot elevate a flat story. Interesting on an intellectual level, but rarely absorbing.
The ‘Making Of’ on board here is mainly made up of talking heads, but it is fairly in-depth. The actors discuss the interesting approach Moverman took. Scenes and motivations were described and then the actors were left to improvise on the spot. It was this approach, combined with Moverman’s previous work in his film The Messenger that seems to have attracted the heavy-hitting cast to even the most minor of roles – the likes of Steve Buscemi crop up for two scenes.
Elsewhere, Bukowski talks of his filming style, including the decision to slowly obscure the Dave Brown character and the difficulties of keeping things handheld even when shooting action in a car. The latter required the construction of a special car rig deliberately designed to let the camera swing about slightly, rather than the traditional method of keeping it as stable as possible.
Rampart is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Madman