There’s dirty cops and there’s bad cops, and there’s a difference between the two. In Oren Moverman’s Rampart, a large-scale scandal threatens to ruin an entire police division, but the possibly-orchestrated (and conveniently televised) fall from grace of a single, uninvolved officer forms the plot of the filmmaker’s sluggish and sloppy second feature. Writer and director Moverman again teams with his The Messenger star, Woody Harrelson, as maybe-fall guy Dave Brown, a renegade cop unhinged by the possibility that he’s been bad all along, he just didn’t know it.
Though Rampart makes copious mention of the complicated real-life scandal that shook up Los Angeles and the LAPD in the 90s, the film itself instead focuses on the fictional tale of Harrelson’s Dave Brown. An old school cop, a former solider who spends a touch too much time harkening back to his Vietnam years, Harrelson fills out Dave with enough of that classic Woody charm to keep him endlessly watchable, but frequently hard to care about (Harrelson will likely get some Oscar buzz, and if anything in this film is awards-worthy, it’s Harrelson’s work). A cigarette-chomping, skirt-chasing alcoholic, Dave doesn’t have much to recommend him besides swagger and a smirk, but even that can’t save him when he’s caught on tape positively kicking the crap out of a citizen who (at least on the video) appears to be doing nothing wrong. Sent to the media and popping up on newscasts across the city, Dave’s bad behavior may be ruining his life, but it also provides a presumably easy fix for the troubled LAPD. Get Dave to go on TV, get him to apologize, get him to retire early, get the public to stop thinking that all cops are irredeemable. But Dave has another idea.
Dave spends his day alone in his cruiser, a solitary beat cop who seems disinterested in having any sort of discourse with fellow law enforcement officials, criminals, or those citizens he’s dispatched to protect and serve. While Dave being a self-styled lone wolf works to increase his feelings of alienation, it removes the partnership dynamic that often gives films of this genre a larger sense of both flow and structure. Without a partner to help synthesize and contextualize Dave, we’re meant to experience Harrelson’s character by way of a much larger pool of supporting characters (including an underutilized Ben Foster, barely recognizable the first time he shows up), none of whom provide a view of Dave that’s any deeper or any richer than “man, this guy is really messed up.”
Dave’s work life is complicated enough, first with the looming scandal that’s consuming his entire station, and then with his own troubles with the law he’s meant to uphold, but that’s nothing compared to his home life. Bouncing between neighboring houses, it’s explained quickly that Dave isn’t just lucky enough to have a pair of attractive lady neighbors who like to share more than just with him, he’s unlucky enough to live in a mini-compound with his two ex-wives (Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche) and two young daughters. Adding to that potent mix of emotions? Dave’s ex-wives are sisters, and while they don’t seem to have any problems with each other, they have plenty with Dave. Dave’s eldest daughter, Helen (Brie Larson, more than holding her own against the heavy-hitter cast), is going through her own teenage angst, though his youngest Margaret (a plucky Sammy Boyarsky) still looks at him with stars in her eyes.
Screenwriter Moverman first jumped into the directorial pond with 2009’s The Messenger, which also starred Harrelson and Foster. Whereas The Messenger is a much more direct, straight-to-the-heart drama packed with compelling characters and a finely-wrought story, Rampart abandons that rich attention to detail and emotion in favor of a slicked-up production that crumbles under the weight of its own pretension.
Rampart is not content to just be a simple tale of a fall guy pushed off a ledge, as Moverman seems compelled to overproduce his production, taking the grit out and the edge off by way of overproduction. Moverman’s trademark long takes are positively out of control here, and in the literal sense, with one notable 360-degree spin shot winding on (and on and on) until it’s nearly nauseating, the sort of trick you’d expect from a first-year film student mistaking distraction for profundity. Even more grating is that it’s not even a particularly well-made shot, frequently cutting out and back in again, incomplete but also unyielding. Moverman is also overly concerned with background noise, drowning out essential conversations with passing vehicles and uninvolved chatter. When those two elements combine during a tonally totally-out-there Dave-goes-on-a-major-bender sequence, the audience may find themselves sitting up for the first time, but only because they’re trying to get up and leave.
Even a script conceived of and co-written by veteran crime writer James Ellroy can’t save Rampart from feeling like a lesser pulp flick that doesn’t ever quite get across what it’s trying to say. Instead of relying on the strength of his cast to get the job done, Moverman delivers a film much more concerned with flashing the badge than throwing any real muscle behind it. There’s dirty cops and there’s bad cops, but Rampart never puts up a wall between the two.
The Upside: Harrelson delivers another solid performance, made all the better by Moverman’s compelling character-building details.
The Downside: Overwrought and obvious production break down what could be (and should be) a pulpy cop tale.
On the Side: Fans of another AFI FEST flick, I Melt With You, will likely enjoy a particular sequence rife with its own overdone drugs, booze, and boobs.