Oren Moverman’s debut feature film, 2009’s The Messenger was one of my favorites of the year, and it even garnered a few Oscar nominations, although it didn’t win anything. Now, Moverman is back for his second feature, the police film Rampart, where he has re-teamed with his stars from The Messenger, Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson, although this time they switch, Foster does the supporting role, and Harrelson handles the main character. Beyond that, Rampart is a much different film.
Set in 1999, after the exposure of the corruption of the CRASH anti-gang unit in LAPD’s Rampart division, the division was barely surviving in the press and on the street. Officer Dave Brown (Harrelson) is an old school LAPD cop, willing to bust heads and not afraid to deny everything to save his own ass. His life is a disaster: his two ex-wives live next door to each other (I suppose being sisters doesn’t help Dave’s cause, either) as he explains to his daughter that she and her half-sister are also cousins, but that doesn’t make them inbred. His professional life isn’t much better: Because of his stubborn disposition toward the job, Dave embroils himself in a scandal when he is filmed beating a man that crashed into him in his police cruiser. Later, in a desperate attempt to fix his life, Dave is involved in an on-duty shooting that looks suspicious to the DA Investigator looking into the case (Ice Cube), who doesn’t like what he finds.
Meanwhile, Dave is trying to date what turns out to be a prosecutor for the DA’s office. Dave puts an empty smile to the outside world, but everything about him is broken. He likes to think that if he believes in himself enough, he can change himself, but he has trouble believing it and living it on a day-to-day basis. He espouses knowledge to young rookies and enjoys busting heads on duty as a past-time, and he doesn’t know how to like anything different. The one thing he does do is check in on The General (Ben Foster), a junkie war vet that is the only witness to Dave’s shooting.
Joining Moverman on the script for Rampart is legendary LA crime author James Ellroy, most famous for his “LA Quartet”, a series of novels set in Los Angeles, one of which was successfully adapted in 1997, LA Confidential. However, his recent work, namely as one of many writers on Street Kings starring Keanu Reeves have been more miss than hit, same with past films The Black Dahlia, and Dark Blue. Unfortunately, on a screenplay level, Rampart is more of the same. Too many cliches, not enough meat on the bones to justify their use. The story is set out to be so bleak that its ultimate bleakness is really no surprise at all. However, it also doesn’t satisfy the character or say anything interesting about his situation, it merely presents it.
The decided non-ending doesn’t help this tone, I understand it’s meant to be interpreted however the viewer likes to, but at the same time, it ultimately feels lazy, like there was no ending to the story so they just didn’t end it. Which begs the question, why make the film at all? Don’t be fooled, the film is well made, with interesting photography, great location work, and lots of great character work in the acting. Unfortunately, it all adds up to a small piece of a story, rather than something really special with something new to say about police corruption in Los Angeles, like The Messenger had something new and interesting to say about the wars overseas.
Moverman doesn’t quite hit his mark on this one, but at the same time, this still encourages me to see his future films, because although this was a misfire, it was a solid misfire, and the acting alone is worth watching at any time, because few films get this caliber of work onscreen, so when it does happen, it’s fun to watch. Ultimately, too silly a film to really be anything serious, too unfocused to be about anything really memorable. Still worth a watch, however, in this vast landscape of poorly made and poorly acted films. This one doesn’t quite achieve anything great, but it’s not a bad way to kill two hours, especially in comparison to a lot of stuff coming out.