“This isn’t your father’s L.A.P.D.”
The H-Bomb: Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) is an ethically challenged police officer working out of the scandal ridden Rampart Division in 1999 Los Angeles. Like many dirty cops in dirty cop movies, he is a racist, a sexist, a drunk, a womanizer, a crook, a sociopath, and overall, just a complete asshat of a human being who freely abuses the power his badge affords him. For years, Brown has been bending and breaking the rules with complete impunity . . . but, all that is about to change.
One day, dear Davey is caught beating the living snot out of a suspect on videotape, and it quickly turns into a public relations disaster, with everyone from Brown’s superiors to the Mayor’s office rushing into damage control mode. If that’s not enough, Brown gets mixed up in a questionable shooting, and an old bad deed from his past resurfaces, as both his personal and professional lives start to fall apart in a rapid, downward spiral.
He gets kicked out of the house that he shares with his two ex-wives (who happen to be sisters . . . yuck), he’s being investigated and tailed by the D.A.’s office, and it’s looking more and more certain that he will be facing some kind of prosecution for one, or more, of his many, many misdeeds. Even his old mentor, Hartshorn (Ned Beatty), a retired cop who is still a pretty powerful backroom mover and shaker, and who has gotten Brown off the hook in the past, is telling him that he’s pretty much fucked.
If this scenario doesn’t give you even a slight sense of déjà vu, then you probably haven’t seen any of the urban police thrillers that have come out over the last decade. And there in lies my major beef with Rampart, a new corrupt cop drama directed by Oren Moverman, who co-wrote the screenplay with James Ellroy, everything that goes on in the film has been done before. If you’ve seen either version of Bad Lieutenant, or Training Day, or Narc, or Dark Blue, or Street Kings, or Brooklyn’s Finest, then, essentially, you have seen Rampart. It doesn’t help that most of those films are considerably better than Rampart, which is a stale old narrative that runs rampant with clichés.
The irredeemably crooked, amoral cop who gets his long deserved comeuppance has become an overdone staple of the cop movie genre, one that Rampart fails to bring anything new to, unless you want to count Moverman’s astonishingly pretentious direction. His previous film was 2009’s The Messenger, which I thought was fantastic (I meant to review it, but for some reason I never did). Part of what made that film as good as it was, was the simple and straightforward way it was shot. For Rampart, however, Moverman decided to constantly jerk off with the visuals, giving us camera moves and bizarre angles that are distractingly obnoxious and that constantly get in the way of the storytelling.
The worst example is Steve Buscemi’s big scene, where the camera constantly pans around in circles for no reason I could discern. It’s a scene of people sitting in an office talking, why in the hell couldn’t he just set the camera down in the tripod and let the actors carry it? The camera work was so overdone that I had to rewind it back and re-watch the scene, because I was concentrating so much on the ridiculous camera movements, I didn’t even hear what the hell was said the first time around.
Another aspect that Movermen botched up is how he handled the supporting cast. On the DVD cover, it’s quite the impressive ensemble… one that Moverman had no flippin’ clue how to use. Beatty and Robin Wright (as an attorney who has a fling with Brown) aside, everyone from Ben Foster (one of the film’s producers), to Sigourney Weaver, to Ice Cube, to the always awesome Buscemi himself, are wasted. Most only have a scene or two each, and even in those scenes they don’t get much to do.
All those near fatal flaws not withstanding, there is one aspect that prevents Rampart from descending into a complete cesspool of suckage; Harrelson’s commanding performance. As Brown, he flawlessly embodies this scumbag who, at the start, is just as arrogant as he is ignorant, but who gradually turns more and more desperate as the world he thought he had all figured out starts unraveling around him. Harrelson is truly dynamic in the role, I just wish the rest of the film could have matched his powerful turn. It’s a shame that it didn’t, because Harrelson finds himself in the same position John Cusack was in with The Raven, one in which he, all by his lonesome, is keeping this thing from dropping dead completely.
So, what else is left to say about Rampart, other than it’s not terrible, just disappointingly routine and underwhelming? Not a whole hell of a lot, I‘m afraid. If you’re a fan of Woody Harrelson, or of this kind of gritty, cynical (and tired) police drama, then Rampart is probably a must see. But if you’re not, then this is one cliché infested flick you can easily live without.