Rampart is a cop film co-written by James Ellroy. If you’ve read or seen any James Ellroy before, you don’t need me to tell you much more. In fact, it would make this one of the shortest reviews I’ll ever do. Here you go: Rampart is better than Street Kings, but not quite as enjoyable as Dark Blue. If you’re less acquainted with Ellroy, then stay with me a little longer. And check out Dark Blue later. Kurt Russell’s great in it.
Although I need to add a concession here: Ellroy’s cinematic output to date isn’t quite what it seems. He wrote the original screenplays for both Street Kings and Dark Blue, but has apparently disowned both, after each were taken over by David Ayer. And the film he’s most associated with – L.A. Confidential – was adapted from his book without his involvement.
But re-writes and second party adaptations can’t hide the essential make-up of an Ellroy protagonist – a cop doing bad in order to do good. And Rampart adds another worthy entry to the James Ellroy dirty cop genre.
Rampart is set against the backdrop of the 1999 Rampart scandal, a division of the LAPD that was so awash with corruption and misconduct it served as the inspiration behind The Shield (if you haven’t seen it, buy it at the same time as Dark Blue, please). Enter Woody Harrelson’s Dave Brown (literally in every scene of the film – he’s never off screen), a street cop of eighteen years who’s alleged to have killed unarmed suspects, and looks more strung-out than most junkies.
As a character, he has less of a silver lining than Keanu Reeves in Street Kings or Kurt Russell in Dark Blue. Both those films, and even L.A. Confidential, told a tale of redemption in some way. Their protagonists were men of violence, but in service to a morality that made some kind of sense.
Rampart may be the most undiluted Ellroy work we’ll ever see on screen. Is that down to co-writer and director Oren Moverman? Let’s wait a while. Ellroy has never been shy to air his views on film adaptations of his work (prior to the release of The Black Dahlia, he called that film’s director Brian De Palma “an overrated auteur”). But if Ellroy’s world normally balances the pessimism and cynicism with enough morality to convince you it’s not all that bad out there, Rampart doesn’t leave us with such comfort.
Is there a good man trying to break out of Harrelson’s destructive and violent Dave Brown? I’m still not sure, which is what carries Rampart through its barely there plot. It’s a character study of a character who refuses to bend to the cinematic norm. Closer, then, to Nicolas Cage’s Bad Lieutenant than Russell Crowe’s Bud White.
It makes the film heavy-going at times, with none of the over-the-top theatrics of Herzog’s inspired Bad Lieutenant, and little of the action set pieces of Dark Blue or Street Kings. Moverman films it closer in style to The Shield, with documentary-style shaky cameras and static behind-head shots. He pulls out some technical fireworks (one scene looks like it was filmed on a merry-go-round, another like it’s the end of the film reel and the sound mixer was off that day) as if trying to compensate for the film’s slow pace, but these feel gratuitous in a film that’s surprisingly free from cheap thrills.
And Rampart has its own fireworks courtesy of Harrelson’s incredible performance. Emaciated and strung-out, an alert lizard with pursed lips, Harrelson does what Cage rarely does and internalises his torment and rage. He has a directness that’s both hilarious and alarming, charming or alienating every woman he meets and tries to seduce (including Sigourney Weaver!). His dirty cop never really does anything that truly despicable on screen, but the threat hangs heavy in every scene.
It’s enough to fuel the entire film, even with the abundance of names lurking in the background: Steve Buscemi (who gives little more than a cameo), Robin Wright, Ben Foster, and, most welcome of all, Ned Beatty, who’s given more to chew on here in fifteen minutes than in the last fifteen years.
That only a few of the supporting cast register feels like a casualty of the script, which can’t quite find a story big enough in which to contain Harrelson’s Brown. But maybe that’s the point. Rampart starts out as a film about a dirty cop, and ends in much the same way. Free of compromise and free of concession. Ellroy might even like this one himself.