In the late 1990s, the LAPD Rampart division became embroiled in a series of scandals that had a wide-reaching effect on the whole city, state and country. Several of the police officers were found to take bribes, steal from the evidence locker, and falsify police reports. On top of this, there seemed to just be a generally nasty attitude among the officers, particularly of those operating under the CRASH initiative (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums), who openly had the motto “intimidate those who intimidate others.” When one of their men pled guilty to stealing cocaine, he implicated as many as 70 other police officers with forms of misconduct, in order to not face harsher consequences.
Rampart is set in Los Angeles during 1999, around the height of the scandals, but is by no means directly about them. Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) is a dodgy cop who clearly has that nasty CRASH attitude when he’s out on his beat. After footage of him brutally beating an unarmed suspect makes the evening news (and beyond), Brown founds himself a fresh symbol of all that is wrong with the LAPD. While his superiors would like Brown to step down to help make the whole thing go away, Brown is adamant that no matter what the outcome, he has to still be a cop at the end of it all.
This film is being sold exclusively on Woody Harrelson’s performance, and it’s easy to see why. “The most corrupt cop you’ve ever seen on screen,” reads Rampart‘s tagline, and while I know a couple of Bad Lieutenants who might disagree with that, there’s no denying that the character is scum. In his professional life, he beats and intimidates suspects, steals evidence, and guns men down in cold blood. In his home life, he sleeps around, drinks constantly, chain smokes, and places a heavy burden on his family (he has two daughters from two ex-wives who are sisters).
However, the primary reason why the marketing department focuses on Harrelson’s presence and performance is because the film has little else on offer. Director Oren Moverman has rounded up an impressive supporting cast and given them little to do: Sigourney Weaver, Ned Beatty, Robin Wright, Ben Foster, Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, Ice Cube and Steve Buscemi all try their best in the very few minutes of screen-time allowed to them.
The plot itself is very thin, but that’s completely fine in a film that’s aiming to be a character study of a complex human being, but I’m not sure Rampart even succeeds there. With so much emphasis placed on how despicable he is, you’d hope the redeeming qualities that help balance him out would be strong enough to have him rise above a rampaging cliché. The film decides to go the dedicated-to-his-family route, but as his ex-wives are finished with him, and his eldest daughter is a man-hating lesbian (the film’s stereotype, not mine) who doesn’t need him, it all falls upon the shoulders of his youngest daughter, Margaret, played by novice Sammy Boyarsky. Boyarsky probably gives the finest performance in the film when her character confronts her father to see if the stories are true. The scene appears designed to have us sympathise with or at least pity Brown instead of outright despising him, but it’s too little and too late.
The buzz surrounding the film going in was already a little negative, but I told myself it was probably because most were comparing it to Moverman’s sublime debut The Messenger – a film that did have a fantastic performance from Harrelson. Well, I don’t need The Messenger to declare Rampart a poor film. It’s cluttered, noisy and constantly keeps the audience at a distance. The one thing you could say it delivers on: it’s as mean and ugly as the scandals from which it draws its title.