A character portrait of a dirty cop in Los Angeles is a case of arrested development, as a terrific cast meander about on an endless beat.
Woody Harrelson‘s cop is a nasty little soul, although Oren Moverman‘s second feature with the former Cheers star will pale in comparison to the rogue’s gallery of bad cops that have come before him. Evoking the bad days of Los Angeles police work, Harrelson’s character is no bad lieutenant, although how a cast this good resulted in a film so pedestrian is as puzzling as whether fish dream. Moverman’s previous work, The Messenger (2009) had resulted in an Academy Award nomination for his leading man Harrelson, and his strengths as a screenwriter had also been demonstrated in Jesus’ Son (1999) and the multi-faceted I’m Not There (2007). Yet Rampart is not so much written as cobbled together, an imitation of cinematic life without the corresponding drama.
Overman doesn’t update his tale to the continuing contemporary abuses of power either, perhaps a product of writer James Ellroy‘s fascination with LAPD sordid history of scandal and corruption. Set in the post-riots days of the late 1990s Los Angeles, Dave Brown (Harrelson) is a relic of a bygone era, a bigot and a thug lost in a cage of his own making. Estranged from his current wife (Anne Heche), who lives with his ex-wife (Cynthia Nixon) – and also happens to be his wife’s sister – Brown’s fate grows darker when he is caught on camera beating a suspect almost to death. With the walls closing in on him, he begins an affair with a needy attorney (Robin Wright), even suspecting her of colluding against him.
Rampart is a film as lost as its protagonist, one of the most contemptible and uninspiring leads to put on a uniform. Nicknamed “Date Rape” for his alleged shooting death of a serial rapist, Brown’s lack of remorse and blinkered bigotry makes him a difficult character to like, much less care about the fate of, and his increasingly bullheaded actions to cover his tracks defy logic. Other characters, including authority figures played by Sigourney Weaver and Steve Buscemi, wonder out loud how Brown is still on duty after two concurrent scandals, and pointing out this logic hole leaves the rest of the film with a quandary it never manages to fill.
Overman also tries to satiate this void with a cast of talented actors, and the supporting cast alone are an award-worthy ensemble. Everybody, including the hard-working Harrelson, give these performances their all, and there is little doubting the sincerity or the ability of the assembled star power. However, they are merely patch-up work, covering the cracks of a script that loses its way at the mid-point and never fully regains its way by the time Overman finds his ambiguous conclusion.
Rampart played at the Sydney Film Festival in June 2012.