Rampart seemed to have so much going for it. A script by James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential), Woody Harrelson as a badass LAPD cop, a supporting cast complete with Sigourney Weaver and Steve Buscemi as senior police officials and a director in the shape of Oren Moverman (Oscar nominated writer of The Messenger and I’m Not There). The question we should ask ourselves, like Harrelson’s protagonist, is: Where did it all go wrong?
Nicknamed ‘Date Rape’ (for dubiously shooting dead a suspected rapist), David Douglas Brown (Harrelson) is a police officer whose career (and self-image of invincibility) implodes after unwittingly being caught on camera committing a heinous act of police brutality. Set during the LAPD Rampart scandal in the late 1990’s, Brown becomes something of a scapegoat for the corrupt police department. This sends his macho self-esteem into a downward spiral. Given that ‘Date Rape’ is thoroughly unpleasant pig-of-a-man (with various characters verbally reminding us that he is racist, sexist and homophobic), you might have assumed that his downward spiral would be compelling viewing, but sadly it isn’t.
Rampart is packed full of characters. The most interesting group is undeniably Brown’s family, which consists of two sisters (whom he married successively) and their two daughters (whom he fathered to each respective sister). Aside from his Charlie Sheen style family structure (which unravels at snails pace throughout the film), a number of the other characters contribute little drama to Rampart. Brown’s main ‘love interest’ Linda Fentress (Robin Wright) is an alcohol dependant attorney in whom he confides. Scenes between the two characters result in a wallowing mess, as they are mutual wrecks. Brown’s other friends consist of Hartshort (Ned Beaty) an untrustworthy old friend of his father and General Terry (Ben Foster), a homeless guy with whom he regularly trades cigarettes and booze.
The film is largely built on dialogue scenes between these characters (and Ice Cube’s Internal Affairs Investigator Timkins), but Rampart feels like it requires some action. The relative lack of real action that occurs is approached with a schizophrenic approach to style that attempts to keep the film feeling dynamic. However, the true effect is to make us more aware of the fact that Rampart is all talk and no trousers. Moverman, shooting on the Arri Alexa digital camera, films conversational scenes with an eccentric verve that almost screams ‘student film’. One particularly frustrating scene, a conversation between Harrelson, Weaver and Buscemi consists of shots which pan past each respective character in a wild and unmotivated manner. As an audience member it is all too clear that this is an effort to bring some energy to a scene that is otherwise lacking life.
Were it not for Harrelson’s embodiment of Dave ‘Date Rape’ Brown Rampart would be entirely dull viewing. Harrelson is perfect for a Bad Lieutenant or Dirty Harry type role and there is a sense that with a more dynamic script and a more assured director he would have had the chance to offer more than bigotry juxtaposed with angst. Thinking back to his appearance in No Country for Old Men, Harrelson has the capacity to make a considerable stamp on a film even with limited scenes. That he would make an impression upon Rampart was always inevitable, if only the film could stand up to his presence.