By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) –
You may have recognized director Oren Moverman’s name from The Messenger, which emerged out of nowhere in 2009 and nabbed him a Best Original Screenplay nomination and Woody Harrelson a Best Actor nom. Well, he’s at it again, and Woody just might make it two in a row.
If his riveting performance in Friends with Benefits doesn’t overshadow it.
Rampart is set in 1999, in the midst of the Rampart scandal that shook up the Los Angeles Police Department. Harrelson is Dave Brown, a cop with methods that would make Fox News blush and one scandal already on his resume with the alleged murder of a suspected serial date rapist, which earned him the moniker ‘Date Rape Dave’, a name second only to ‘Child Molestation Charlie’ on the list of ‘What to Name Your Kids if You Hate Them.’
When he’s caught on tape putting the beat down on a man who struck his squad car and then started running, a police department that has enough scandal on its plate tries to fire him. He fights back, but as he loses his ex-cop mentor and the respect of his unconventional family (both of which he had been undermining for some time) he begins to fixate on what he feels is a setup and quickly begins to unravel from there.
The overwhelming attraction here is Harrelson. He plays a man who is truly frightening to behold- convinced of his moral correctness and tactics for enforcing justice as he sees fit. Menace rises off him in heat waves, and the only thing more impressive than Harrelson’s ability to put on the skin of this dark character is his ability to then make him human. We follow the man as he free-falls, and by the end Harrelson almost convinces us to hope he pulls out of it.
The rest of the acting is also excellent. Ben Foster, who had a meaty role in The Messenger, here has a smaller one as a homeless man who witnesses a particularly low moment for Officer Brown, and chews it up as always. One day a casting director is going to see the obvious talent he possesses and offer him his own chance to headline an Oscar-caliber script. I also particularly enjoyed the performance by Ned Beatty, who we haven’t seen in what seems like forever, and the no-nonsense Internal Affairs officer played by Ice Cube.
Obviously playing a continuation of his most famous role
A last raise of the glass goes to Moverman, who displays an entirely different style than his debut film, here employing unsettling close-ups and inventive angles to put the viewer on an unsteady footing just as unnerving as the one inside Dave Brown’s head. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
One performance that I didn’t particularly enjoy was Robin Wright’s. She plays a romantic foil and defense lawyer who doesn’t seem to serve a lot more purpose than an excuse to see Harrelson’s ass from different angles. It’s not entirely her fault, as the meandering script does her no favors and never really establishes why her character’s earned so much screen time.
The script, by noted crime novelist James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential), does have plenty of atmosphere, but ultimately fails as a tight, coherent narrative. This is never more on display than the ending, which doesn’t really add up to anything. It’s not intriguingly ambiguous or stunningly abrupt, it just is, kind of like if a production assistant forgot to copy the last page of the script, and everybody was more interested in finishing up and getting over to The Olive Garden than hunting it down.
Oh God! What if they run out of breadsticks before we get there?
Woody Harrelson’s acting and Oren Moverman’s frenetic direction don’t entirely overshadow a pretty weak story, but they’re good enough to make Rampart worth a watch.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time shots are fired
Take a Drink: whenever Harrelson gets laid or talks about it
Drink a Shot: every time Ned Beatty shows more gangster cred than Ice Cube