“There Is Just Not Enough Narrative Drive In Rampart To Bolster The Amazing Visuals And Dynamic Performances.”
November 7th, 2011
Before my favorite TV show of all time, The Shield, aired on FX, it was known as Rampart, since the show was loosely based on/inspired by the Rampart police scandal which rocked the L.A.P.D. in the late 1990s. The scandal implicated more than two dozen officers in the CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hooligans) anti-gang unit of the L.A.P.D.'s Rampart division, with allegations of unlawful shootings, framing suspects, planting evidence, and three officers who were accused of being involved in the shooting death of rapper The Notorious B.I.G. The show was later changed to The Shield, since viewers outside Los Angeles would likely not understand the connection between the show and the actual scandal. With the new movie Rampart, I was hoping for a drama inspired by the scandal that shed more light on these corrupt cops, but, while the movie is acted and directed wonderfully, I didn't quite get what I hoped for.
Rampart centers on Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson), a Rampart division cop in 1999, just after the scandal first broke. The L.A.P.D. is obviously going through an image crisis, and, as we quickly learn, the last thing they need is a renegade cop like Dave Brown.... or he could be just what the L.A.P.D. needs after all. After he is broadsided, he chases the driver down and viciously beats the man, which, of course, is all caught on camera. It becomes clear that he's being thrown under the bus by his employers, to shift the focus away from the brewing Rampart scandal, which, sadly, isn't touched upon too deeply. His personal life is in the dumps as well, living with not one but two of his ex-wives (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon), a situation which is not only incredibly weird, but never fully explained, along with his daughter (Brie Larson) and young son, who have a growing disdain for their father.
The performances are not the problem here at all, with Woody Harrelson in top form as the troubled Dave Brown, who refuses to give in to the radical changes presented with his job amidst the scandal. It is an incredibly complex character, because we're bombarded with evidence that Dave is just a bad guy down to the core, who always seems to have some form of liquor in his hand, or a new woman in his bed. He seems to rationalize it all through his job, with his collection of vices being some of the tools he needs just to get through the day. Harrelson still finds a way to make us sympathetic to his plight, despite the character's deplorable acts. It's an incredibly nuanced and layered performance from Harrelson, one that may even get him some Oscar recognition next year. We also get yet another fine performance from Ben Foster, an actor who I'm desperately hoping lands a juicy lead role in the very near future, but, who in the meantime, consistently delivers bold and wonderful supporting turns. He plays General Terry in Rampart, a wheelchair-ridden homeless man who Dave visits on his beat. As great as he is, though, we don't get nearly enough of this extremely talented actor in Rampart. We're also treated to performances by Ned Beatty, Steve Buscemi, Sigourney Weaver, and Ice Cube, although it almost feels like stunt casting since the roles are so insignificant. Don't get me wrong, they all deliver fine performances, but it felt odd to me that they're all there in such small roles, since we only get to see their talents for such a small amount of time on screen.
The main problem I had is with the screenplay, which director Oren Moverman (The Messanger) wrote with noted L.A. crime author/screenwriter James Ellroy. I was hoping for a deep exploration of the scandal, and what I got was an intricate character study, set against the backdrop of the Rampart corruption. I understood what they were trying to do here, since James Ellroy employed a similar tactic with Dark Blue, another corrupt crime tale set just before the Rodney King riots happened in Los Angeles. It doesn't quite work here, because, unlike the Rodney King riots, the Rampart scandal didn't make national headlines/ It doesn't have the same weight when you put an ordeal like this in the backdrop if a high percentage of the audience doesn't know what it is in the first place. While you are ultimately drawn to Dave Brown and his exploits, when I walked out of the theater, I had this feeling that, ultimately, nothing really happened. It's an intricate and thought-provoking look at this character, but he doesn't seem to have changed much from beginning to end. I kept waiting for something big to happen in Rampart, and it just never does.
Oren Moverman does establish himself here as quite a visually intriguing director, because it is a rather gorgeous movie, which is also interesting since it is set in such a gritty and seedy world. Ultimately, I think Rampart is worth seeing to see Moverman grow as a director, and for a wonderful collage of fantastic performances.
As much as I wanted to see a different movie with Rampart, I wouldn't go as far to say I was duped. Perhaps my undying love for The Shield, and my limited knowledge of the scandal that inspired it, got my hopes up that I would learn something more about what really went down in L.A.P.D.'s Rampart division in the late 1990s. I guess it's more my fault than Oren Moverman's that I didn't like Rampart quite as much as I wanted to, because I was dead-set on seeing the version I wanted to see. It's not Oren Moverman's fault that he made this version of Rampart when I wanted to see something else. Still, there is just not enough narrative drive in Rampart to bolster the amazing visuals and dynamic performances.