Rampart invokes a question which, in itself, is never a good sign when it comes to filmmaking. What went wrong when the end result is much lesser than the sum of its parts?
Here we have the multi-talented Woody Harrelson, in the role of a psycho LA cop, flanked by great names such as Sigourney Weaver, Steve Buscemi, Ned Beatty and Robin Wright, in a film that, for all intents and purposes, offers great material and a thrilling story. Now, subtract from this sum the fact that most of these talents are shamefully underused, and then the factors of bad writing, bad direction, complete lack of build-up and the weakest ending in the history of weak endings... and what do you get? Proof that you need a lot more than a can full of great actors to make a great film, that's what.
This story is set in the late 90s. Harrelson plays Dave Brown, a Los Angeles police officer with 24 years of experience under his belt. He is a racist, misogynistic, violent brute and absolutely unashamed of it. He shares his house (and his bed) with two sisters, both of whom mothered his two daughters. At work, he will literally beat a confession out of any poor bastard under his interrogation. And when push comes to shove, he might just shove you into an early grave. Needless to say, this guy is not big on ethics. Until he himself is placed under interrogation by his superiors after he is caught using excessive force on a man who accidentally rammed his patrol car. This incident also sheds new light on a decade-old case of Dave killing an alleged rapist. All of this builds up to Dave's pending lawsuit.
So that's the basic story. Although – and this is a good thing – it's all pretty much a backdrop to a portrait of one seriously messed-up individual, and the people that get messed up by default.
Writing this review, I find it hard to answer the original question. Because this is usually the part where I point out all the good things about the film, but I'm actually having trouble finding any good things to say about Rampart. Well, there's one (very!) good thing and that's Woody Harrelson. Matter of fact, he's the only reason I even finished watching. He's one of my favourite actors, so it's hard not to sound biased, but the versatility he brings to every project he's involved in, is quite astounding. And should he ever win an Oscar in the future, it will be long overdue. His portrayal of this character is absolutely convincing, but it's a shame that his performance here is almost completely wasted in this would-be art house drivel. Had this been a better film, the Academy might just have noticed him.
Instead, what we're presented here is really nothing more than a lame excuse for an artistically made film. Technically, the only things that even remotely make it work are the good camera work and photography. The lighting techniques are very well applied and the image colouring and camera angles make the whole aesthetically well-made, and create an appropriate and heavy atmosphere. But that's pretty much it. Great actors completely fall by the wayside in small, uninteresting roles that could have been played by anybody. Sigourney Weaver plays a local DA which is a role that only shows her sitting behind a desk for about five minutes. Steve Buscemi plays the smallest and most insignificant role of his career as I-don't-even-know-who, and has no more than maybe six lines of dialogue. I don't know why he even bothered to show up. Robin Wright plays an attorney, whose relevance to the story becomes more and more puzzling throughout the film. And Ned Beatty? Oh yeah, he's in there somewhere too...
I should point out that the bad quality of this film is to no account of the actors, they are all very good in their roles. The fault here lies almost entirely with the bad screenplay. There is simply no proper start, zero build-up and the ending is so painstakingly unsatisfactory that it feels like a bad hangover. The structure of story-telling seems completely arbitrary and fragmented, like they just threw a whole bunch of random scenes together and decided to call it a film. Director Oren Moverman has made a few critically acclaimed films, most notably his Bob Dylan pic 'I'm Not There', but Rampart is one film I wouldn't want on my résumé.
What's probably the biggest let-down is the lack of shock value. The premise of Rampart is that it's about the incredibly violent nature of this one "all-American" police officer. And it's true, the things he says and does are pretty brutal, heartless and offensive. But all in all, it's actually not as bad as I thought it would be. I'm saying this not from a realistic point of view, because I think anyone who behaves like this should be behind bars, but as a film, it's just not interesting enough. The scenes depicting violence are few and far in between, and aside from the fact that he obviously uses women as a personal commodity, Dave Brown's character never really rises above your basic a**hole standard. There are – unfortunately – many more guys like this walking around, and I'm even sure there are cops worse than this one.
Altogether, the film drags, the pacing is awful and in the end, it leaves you feeling utterly hollow and unsatisfied. Some people might appreciate Rampart as a vague kind of indie effort, but I'm usually one of those people. I 'get' vague. I 'get' artsy. I don't 'get' Rampart.
It's an utter waste of great talent and opportunity, and I would wish for all actors involved that this had been a better film, because they deserve it, but this film is a blemish on anyone's track record.