RAMPART Shows Brilliance, But Tells Too Much

Date Rape Dave Brown is a sweetheart.

Don’t just take it from me. Rampart makes a strong case. Halfway through this Oren Moverman art-house film and you’ll be primed to buy Officer Dave Brown, Woody Harrelson, a World’s Best Dad mug. It’ll be something to admire while serving his life sentence in solitary.

This perspective on a crooked cop goes beyond just moral ambiguity in Rampart. Director Oren Moverman and his co-writer, James Ellroy of L.A. Confidential fame, stumble into contradicting themselves. You can count on mega-tonnage talent propelling you along a chain of spectacular set piece scenes steeped in character and tension. Just watch out for the plot holes and flawed handling of the protagonist along the way.

Rampart‘s plot is simple enough: It’s 1999 and the LAPD upper echelons are eager for a scapegoat to visit the sins of the murky Rampart scandal on. Enter Officer Dave Brown, self-described “glorious soldier” who earned his moniker by capping a suspected rapist in cold blood.

Dave’s not shy when it comes to taking matters a step too far to prove a point. He lays into a fleeing suspect with Rodney King-caliber brutality. Then, when he’s about to be served up on the altar of the LAPD, Dave only makes things worse by making a bloody, illegal ploy for easy cash. Events really circle down the bowl from there.

Let’s get something straight right from the jump: This is no “crime film.” It’s a personal drama – practically a biopic for the modern-day LAPD – that has crimes in it. All the formulas of the crime flick – mysteries, twists, paint-by-the-numbers pacing – are disregarded.

Instead, Rampart treats us to a searing portrait of a once-noble Alpha Male on the decline. Date Rape Dave is a deeply vulnerable dinosaur who gets buried by a world he can’t solve with his fists and wits. He’s the best part of the film, and that’s a damn good thing, because he’s practically the only thing the film is about.

Harrelson pulls off an impressario performance in Dave’s boots. Every incendiary scene in the script would have screamed at an amateur actor to play it over the top. Woody keeps the pyrotechnics to a minimum. He manages to make Dave seethe, snarl and stare his way through the emotional arc of each scene, delivering electricity but doing it quietly.

This makes Rampart a masterwork design of a man filled with anger, who channels it into white-knuckle self-control. Think Raylan Givens in LAPD dark blue. And as if this wasn’t hypnotic enough, Moverman and Ellroy expertly arrange the events so that Dave’s descent into loss of control isn’t just a straight shot. He rises and sinks like a drowning man as the scenes flow seamlessly together.

The Rampart supporting cast provides most of the propellant. Dave is the rock of their lives in many ways; they have to show us violence to crack him. Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche do great work as petite powderkegs, mild one moment and raging at their baby daddy Dave the next.

His daughters are tragically powerful actresses, too. The angry teen, Brie Larson, manages to be acidic but tender, as the role demands. Dave’s youngest, played by Sammy Boyarsky, uses subtle ticks to reveal massive inner pain.

Above all, Robin Wright deserves a special gold star for her portrayal of Dave’s female opposite: A crusader who’s being pile-driven by the pressures of the system into an emotional dungeon. She acts as Dave’s cracked mirror without beating the audience over the head with this function.

None of the cast is a slouch. Ice Cube probably could have stepped up his game, but I’ve seen worse, and Sigourney Weaver, Ned Beatty, Ben Foster and Steve Buscemi are at the top of their craft. We are steeped in character.

The city itself is no exception. Rampart‘s atmospheric cinematography by Bobby Bukowski is pitch-perfect. Whatever the frame Moverman’s eye demanded, from the confinement of Dave’s cruiser’s driver seat, to the vast dilapidation of Echo Park’s streets, Bukowski caught it exactly. There are no sloppy cuts, no smeared lighting, nothing but one immersive visual after the next.

Unfortunately for Rampart, there are cracks in this statue of David. By the end of the movie, some of them were clipping the film experience badly enough to make me shake my head.

To some extent, there’s the lack of definite plot that I mentioned above. I could roll with that smoothly enough, but it will lose mainstream audiences who need to feed their attention on trails of bread crumbs. And, not to drop any spoilers, but the void of resolution has been done in so many fine “crime art” films lately – Shame and Drive, for instance – that its lack of formula is practically becoming a formula at this point.

Assuming none of that rankles you, the moviegoer of refined tastes, here’s a bitter pill for you:

Rampart “tells” way too much about Dave, while showing us a character that doesn’t fit what we’re told.

See, Dave does plenty of bad things. He’s brutal, he’s shifty and he’s intolerant. But piled onto that are stacks of dialogue, usually delivered by some ranting adversary, that accuse him of qualities we don’t see.

We’re told, for instance, that Dave’s sexist. However, he defers to the mothers of his children without complaint, inconveniences himself constantly for his girls, pours his own drinks, doesn’t talk back to them and never says anything derogatory. Same thing with homophobia. He gets called a homophobe twice, but Dave has no interactions with a gay character, doesn’t say anything that smacks of homophobia and doesn’t crack gay jokes.

The big one is racism. Whenever people have something bad to say about Dave, they tack “racist” on there. But for a guy who has plenty of occasions to rant about minorities, what with policing a majorly Hispanic neighborhood, Dave never does. He doesn’t use the word “spic,” has a total ban on N-bombs, doesn’t even say something nasty about Koreans or Basque or the Ainu. In only one scene does he give a whiff of racism, commenting that the LA District Attorney’s office selected Ice Cube to investigate him because he’s black and it would curry public favor to have an African-American take down a white cop on the behalf of a department accused of racism. But that was more of a slam against the LA DA, not Ice Cube. Not to mention that the seamy politics portrayed in Rampart suggest Dave’s probably right.

The result is confusion. This isn’t meant to be part of Dave’s many contradictions – it’s a flaw in Rampart. We’re shown plenty of ill deeds to back up his other foul qualities. But to have a character constantly shellacked for bad behavior that is never shown is baffling.

And believe me, Dave is made into enough of a martyr. He’s not a truly vile guy. Yes, he’s a philanderer and, yes, he’s rough on criminals. When he breaks bad, Dave really gets savage. But he does so with heart – his motive being to grab cash that can sustain his fracturing family. That’s a cause Walt White has in common with him, and just look at the sympathy that guy gets.

The final verdict on Rampart is that it is a beautiful, touching character study. Some of you may snort, but I assure you, you’re just going off what you’ve seen in the trailer. The quick clips harvested to tease you into buying a ticket are all the violence you’re getting out of Date Rape Dave.

The rest of the time, you get heart, you get sorrow, you get the kind of slow, sad, self-destruction that is a closer cousin to Ordinary People than to Colors. You may not like Dave, but with the expert craft of Rampart, it’s hard not to understand him.

This kind of cerebral crime movie has little equivalent, but I’m confident that fans of Gangster No. 1 will discover their craving for complexity in character is satisfied. Rampart is more to the tastes of a drama crowd, though, as its lack of investment in plot makes Sexy Beast look like Ocean’s Eleven. I recommend that the King’s Speech kind of crowd pop some beta blockers and check Rampart out.

Whoever dares to spend those spectacular two hours locked in the cruiser with Dave is going to get a hell of a ride. They’ll find a close friend and a bitter enemy in Officer Brown. And isn’t that just how we relate to all cops?

+Matthew Funk is a social media consultant, professional marketing copywriter and writing mentor. He is the editor of the Genre section of the critically acclaimed zine, FictionDaily and Full Stop. Winner of the Spinetingler award for Best Short Story on the Web 2010, M. C. Funk has been published at numerous sites online, indexed at his Web site, and in print with Needle Magazine, Howl, 6S and Crime Factory. He is represented by Stacia J. N. Decker of the Donald Maass Literary Agency.