Inspired by the same police corruption scandal of the 90s and starring Woody Harrelson (The Hunger Games) with a buzz-cut millimeters away from resembling Detective Vic Mackey’s shaved head, Rampart is essentially a movie-length episode of TV’s The Shield. Only, y’know, without any of the character complexity or narrative intrigue.
Written by crime novelist James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential) and directed by Oren Movermen — whose previous collaboration with Harrelson, The Messenger, scored the actor an Oscar nomination – Rampart chronicles the desperate actions of a veteran police officer as he attempts to cover-up a career of violence and corruption. But in spite of the promising premise, Rampart soon proves to be a dull, pointless and unfulfilling viewing experience; one that’s loaded with poorly executed cop movie clichés, and focuses on a protagonist you couldn’t possibly care about less.
Dave “Date Rape” Brown (Harrelson) – nicknamed as such because of his alleged murder of a serial rapist – is a veteran L.A. patrolman who embodies all the worst stereotypes that the profession cinematically entails. In the words of Dave’s daughter, he’s “a racist, a bigot, a sexist, a womaniser, a chauvinist, a misanthrope [and] a homophobe.” Inevitably, his bad behaviour gets caught on camera, much to chagrin of his superiors (Sigourney Weaver; Avatar and Steve Buscemi; TVs Boardwalk Empire), already neck deep in accusations of departmental corruption. If only they knew the half of it.
Harrelson’s performance is a decent one, although it’s not quite the tour-de-force the marketing would have you believe. He’s actually best in quieter moments, like in the scenes between him and his daughters (Brie Larson; 21 Jump Street, and newcomer Sammy Boyarksy), which are the closest the character ever comes to displaying some semblance of humanity. Elsewhere, Dave’s biggest crime turns out to be just how unengaging he is as a protagonist, with no arc, no complexity and no redeeming qualities to speak of. By the time he smokes his hundredth cigarette — I felt like I contracted throat cancer just watching this movie — Dave’s hard-ass act hits the point of diminishing returns, his overt stereotypes so deeply ingrained, he hasn’t the capacity to change. Whether he buys into his own bullshit rationalisations or is just plain evil, his unrepentant attitude ensures he never finds himself confronted by a moral dilemma, lest he actually learn something.
Unwisely, Moverman opts to underplay the impact of Dave’s debauched actions. Sure, beating ethnic minorities to a pulp is just another day at the races for our “hero”, yet none of the film’s plot occurrences – including several assaults and a murder – are imbued with the dramatic weight that they should have been. Dave doesn’t have the capacity to empathise with his victims, so it’s as if Moverman wants to prevent us from empathising as well. This does nothing but lessen the dramatic effect of the movie, while the film’s harsh handheld cinematography fails to inject any of the edginess lacking from the script.
On the plus side, Rampart is hardly the worst adaptation of a James Ellroy novel: that honour goes to David Ayer’s truly abysmal Street Kings. The acting here is at least convincing, both from its lead and a supporting cast that includes the likes of Ned Beatty (Toy Story 3), Ice Cube (Are We There Yet?), Ben Foster (Contraband), Robin Wright (Moneyball), Anne Heche (Ceder Rapids) and Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City 2). Ultimately though, the ancillary players leave little lasting impression, because Rampart is a character piece, and remains doggedly invested in Dave. Given his genericness and lack of complexity, this proves a rather insurmountable problem.
Rampart was reviewed as part of our coverage of the 2012 Sydney Film Festival.