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Review: Rampart (2012)

Rampart (2012)

Directed by: Oren Moverman

Premise: Set in 1999, a corrupt Los Angeles police officer is investigated for brutality.

What Works: Rampart is a character study and it is successful in what it is attempting to do. In a way, Rampart is refreshing in that it is a police drama but it is not a film about car chases or shootouts. Instead this is a movie that peels away the layers of its central character, played by Woody Harrelson, and reveals the troubles underneath the exterior. Harrelson has played this kind of character before in movies like The Messenger and Battle in Seattle, and he does it well by managing something very difficult. His character in Rampart explodes into violence against people who may or may not deserve it but Harrelson is able to convey a certain charm and appeal that makes the audience want to continue watching him. Neither he nor the screenplay excuse the character’s actions but his choices are presented in a context that is morally ambiguous and that makes the character empathetic. The film’s success with this characterization is aided by two other talents behind the camera. Rampart was co-written by James Ellory who is known for other crime films like L.A. Confidential and Dark Blue. This film shares many of the themes that run throughout Ellroy’s other work such as corruption, bureaucracy, and the sometimes slippery distinction between the law enforcers and law breakers. This film gets into more nuanced and complicated territory than other pictures Ellroy has been associated with as Harrelson’s character struggles not only with his professional foibles but also as a father. Rampart was co-written and directed by Oren Moverman, who had previously worked with actor Woody Harrelson on the military drama The Messenger. This film is consistent with the qualities of Moverman’s other pictures with its naturalistic camera work and damaged characters. Like The Messenger, Rampart is about a crisis in masculinity. Harrelson’s character is established early on as an authority figure among his fellow police officers but the character’s authority is continually undermined by his ex-wives, his daughters, and female professionals including an internal affairs officer and a lawyer. As the film goes on Harrelson’s character looks for ways out but is continually pulled deeper into the ethical morass of his own doing. In that respect, Rampart manages to be a film about the collapsing regard for traditional authority figures but it does not do so mournfully. Instead the film uses this man’s alienation and marginalization to suggest that the old structures are decaying away and the film is a level headed critique of white male privilege while also questioning what happens after the guard has changed. 

What Doesn’t: Rampart is not a piece of mainstream entertainment. Police films are often fast paced adventures but Rampart is not an action film and viewers should not expect the kind of chases and shootouts of a film like Lethal Weapon or Training Day. This is a slower film about the gradual slip into a moral and ethical abyss and it should be judged as such. As a byproduct of its gritty approach, the film does have some cinematic flaws. Rampart is filmed in a very naturalistic style and some of the scenes are shot so darkly it is hard to tell what is happening.

DVD extras: Trailers.

Bottom Line: Rampart is impressive although it is not a film designed for a mainstream audience. It has flaws in its execution and filmmaking but it has a fascinating performance by Woody Harrelson and fans of the actor or of writer James Ellroy should check it out. 

Episode: #399 (August 5, 2012)