2.5 / 5 stars
Oren Moverman’s first film (and our choice for the best movie of 2009), The Messenger, feels like a classic American independent. His follow-up, the corrupt cop drama, Rampart, feels like it desperately wants to be one. Moverman, who co-wrote the screenplay with tough-guy James Ellroy, overextends and overdirects his good instincts, shooting for go-to-11 verbal intensity with every moment. It gives Rampart an annoyingly forced sense of gravity, playing like a series of acting workshops full of emotive improvisation and furrowed brows.
But Rampart is worth seeing, and for one reason: the work of one Woodrow Tracy Harrelson; look, when the man is filling up a role this heavy, we can’t just call him Woody. Harrelson plays Dave “Date Rape” Brown, a swaggering, intimidating LA cop with a bad attitude and a brain full of logic and procedure. His actions define him as fearless, but Harrelson’s lean-and-mean performance makes him more than just gutsy; he’s confused, menacing and self-destructive. With a crooked smile and devil-may-care attitude, Brown becomes a hot-button scapegoat during the real-life Rampart scandal, a corruption disaster that took place in LA in the late 90s.
Moverman and Ellroy aim to litter Dave’s life with women who hate him — two sisters he’s loved (brilliant casting of Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon), two girls he’s fathered, and an attorney (Robin Wright) who can’t stand him but also can’t get enough. They’d all have you think Dave is a flat-out misogynist, but we know better: this crazy bastard hates everybody, including himself.
Brown has an answer for everything, to anyone, and that’s where Harrelson shows off his incredible chops. The screenplay gives him about 5,000 lines of dialogue, crafted more like monologue, and he crushes just about every one of them. His delivery is hard to define, too: Harrelson makes Brown threatening but polite, making his point with the precision of a chatterbox attorney. But Harrelson doesn’t use speed to deliver Brown’s stable, even-toned diatribes; he uses the inflections of his subtle drawl to keep rolling and rolling, explaining, for instance, how removing him from the LAPD will trigger a series of events that will eventually make him a talk show star — with his superior as the first guest.
In traditional bad-cop movie style, Harrelson gives it to department higher-ups (like Sigourney Weaver) or a lawyer or two (like the painfully out-of-place Steve Buscemi) and does very bad things to bad guys that are potentially worse than him. When Moverman stays out the way, the action is plain, almost matter of fact. When he gets his camera moving in artificial ways, the action is practically neutered. A repeated, 360-degree camera pan during an office argument ruins any screen tension to the point of being unintentionally funny.
And a few of the setpieces intended to be desperate or intense feel like they’re not finished, with some scenes between Harrelson and Wright tasting fake. It’s as if Moverman let his players go too far down the overkill line in an attempt for “real”. Remember those few moments in Robert Altman’s The Player where Lily Tomlin is acting in some neon-noir film? Parts of Rampart feel like that.
Moverman still has the right ideas about how stories should evolve, and how far characters should devolve. But Rampart lacks breathing room, doesn’t have the ebb-and-flow dynamics that can make high-impact conflict really count. Woody Harrelson’s unique performance aside, Rampart is miles from the dramatic potential of Oren Moverman’s debut.