Starring: Woody Harrelson, Ice Cube, Ned Beatty, Ben Foster, Anne Heche, Sigourney Weaver, Robin Wright, Brie Larson, Steve Buscemi, Cynthia Nixon, Jon Bernthal
Running Time: 108 min.
★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
I spent half the running time of Rampart wondering when the main character would bite the dust and the other half wondering why I didn't want to see that happen more. It's a frustrating film with isolated flashes of greatness and an electrifying lead performance, starting off as a focused character study, before unraveling as an overplotted mess. It's a compelling mess to be sure, but goes in a bunch of different directions when it really just needs to be going in one. The result is an effort that occasionally impresses but ends up being muddled by bureaucratic and political nonsense, too often tying the film up in as much red tape as its main character.
It's Los Angeles circa 1999 and LAPD officer Dan Brown (Woody Harrelson), is a 24-year veteran of the Rampart division, which is recently reeling from scandal. He's also a racist, mysogynistic, homophobic, corrupt, womanizer with anger management issues serious enough to have earned the nickname, "Date Rape Dan" (for when he allegedly murdered a date rapist in cold blood). Now with video footage surfacing of him assaulting a suspect within an inch of his life and his department under a microscope, his troubled career is called into question by assistant district attorney Joan Confrey (Sigourney Weaver) and Internal affairs investigator Kyle Timkins (Ice Cube) who both are just trying to avoid further embarrassment. He could have been set up, but that point's almost irrelevant when you consider he'd do something like this anyway, and has. His home life isn't much better, as he's living with his two spurned ex-wives (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon) who are sisters. With each he shares a daughter, the eldest of which (Brie Larson) can't stand him. Plagued by scandal and personal demons, Dan's reached the breaking point and must now confront his failings head on or risk losing his job, and possibly his life and family.
Early on, it appears this is going to be a brutal character study of a protagonist who's actually the antagonist. The opening scenes set that stage as Dan verbally abuses a female officer and roughs up a suspect. A portrait of a racist cop out of control with seemingly no conscience or remorse for his actions brings to mind 1992's Bad Lieutenant or its recent New Orleans-based remake starring Nic Cage. But then the film seems to back off that. Then a little more. Then a lot. By about the midway point, the screenplay gets so lost in its corruption plot (which never pays off in a meaningful way), that we almost forget who the story is really about. Worse yet, we keep hearing what a terrible human being this guy is but there just isn't enough evidence presented on screen to support it. He's supposedly this monstrous deadbeat dad, yet most of the scenes he shares with his family aren't nearly as destructive as you'd expect given how much of a ticking time bomb he is on the job. Most of these home scenes work though, at least until they're interrupted by the machinations of what feels too much like a police procedural.
Though the movie frequently seems to lose its grip its the main character, Harrelson doesn't. He can pretty much do anything and they should have let him, rather than just shoehorn the actor into the kind of formula cop movie we've seen far too often. Moverman previously directed him to a supporting actor nomination in 2009's war film, The Messenger, a far more focused effort that knew exactly what it was and where to go. But what's stranger is how he and crime novelist James Elroy's script seems to be in complete conflict with the directorial style and execution. It's shot in almost a frenetic, hand held, docudrama-like way that wants to bring us onto the streets of L.A during the 90's, yet the screenplay is far more conventional than that in how it incorporates familiar elements of dirty cop movies.
Robin Wright plays a suspicious defense attorney Dan starts sleeping with, and while it's a substantial supporting role well played by the great actress, I'm glad I'm not being quizzed on its purpose. The legendary Ned Beatty also appears as a retired dirty cop who still has his hands in everything in the city, making the most of his intense scenes with Harrelson. A bearded Ben Foster is wasted as a wheelchair-bound homeless man while Steve Buscemi cameos. And doing a complete 180 from her recent turn in 21 Jump Street, an almost unrecognizable Brie Larson goes head to head with Harrelson in the emotional family scenes as his rebellious daughter, but even that sub-plot's impact seems diluted amidst everything else. And Heche and Nixon's sibling ex-wives spend most of the movie admonishing Dan or threatening to kick him out the house.
It's always a shame when a movie that should be a home run falters, especially when it comes at the expense of skillful performances that deserved top notch material. If any of this feels like a gripping character study it's due to Harrelson, who provides enough gritty realism to convince us we're watching the movie we really wanted to see instead of the one onscreen. Officer Dan Brown isn't the kind of character you can just plug into a formula plot and expect a thrilling result. He's difficult, requiring a challenging script. You'd figure an independently financed production would have the leeway to take some risks, so it's especially disappointing to see a small film playing it so safe with a hot-button issue like police brutality. On the acting front Rampart definitely delivers, but most of its failings stem from spoon-feeding us more plot than was even necessary.