Woody Harrelson stars as “the most corrupt cop you’ve ever seen on screen” in writer/director Oren Moverman’s follow-up to The Messenger. Rampart was the original title of FX’s The Shield. The show and Rampart the movie traverse similar terrain. I think having seen and loved the show does affect how I view this movie.
Harrelson plays Dave “Date Rape” Brown. He’s a prick of a cop in late 90s Los Angeles. His nickname was earned for a vigilante act he may or may not have committed. When he’s not bending the rules to suit his idea of justice, he splits his time between a decrepit apartment, and two side-by-side houses where his ex-wives live with his two daughters. Things start to go sideways for Dave when he gets caught on tape going all Rodney King on some punk who crashed into his cruiser. The film tracks the fallout from Dave’s unfortunate moment under the microscope.
The incident leads Dave into more trouble as he acquires a mountain of legal fees, while the added scrutiny shines a light on past transgressions. The LAPD is already a hot bed of controversy due to other scandals, and Dave fears he is being set-up as the fall guy. The movie isn’t all that concerned with the story or the outcome of all these events. Instead, Rampart is squarely focused on this character. What makes him tick and how he responds to pressure? The film eventually becomes a reflection of his psyche, where story comprehension is trumped by character examination.
I’m all for a good character study, but this film becomes internal to an annoying degree. It gets to a point where I couldn’t tell if Dave was crazy, crazy smart, paranoid, smarter than everyone, or dumber than he looks. Part of this is intentional on the filmmaker’s part, but that doesn’t mean it worked. It was too much of a character sketch and not enough cop stuff. I mentioned The Shield earlier for a reason. That show knew just how to balance solving cases with rich character moments, where one informed the other. Of course, the show had many episodes to play with, but I think the point is valid. There’s a way to tell this story without being conventional and without losing sight of the plot.
Harrelson is great in the lead role. He’s channeling the same magnetism and menace he brought to Natural Born Killers and The People vs. Larry Flynt. Even when the film was uninteresting, which would be any scene involving his home life, Harrelson holds your attention. The most powerful scene is Dave’s quasi-confession to his daughters, and all of his shame and anguish is writ large on Harrelson’s face. It’s a great moment, but it doesn’t make up for the rest of the film’s decisions. They didn’t make a poor film; they simply didn’t balance to my preferences.