Oren Moverman’s debut as a director, The Messenger, was critically acclaimed after its release in 2009. Woody Harrelson Captain Tony Stone, an army man whose job is to inform the next of kin after a soldier has been killed in combat. His performance in particular drew praise, and lead to Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for best supporting actor. In anticipation of watching Rampart, I watched The Messenger, but felt that co-star Ben Foster (Six Feet Under, 3:10 To Yuma) was better than Harrelson, and that the movie itself was reasonably good, but not great.
In Rampart, Harrelson plays a very different character. He is Dave ‘Date-rape’ Brown (why he has that nickname is probably not why you think), a member of the LAPD’s infamous Rampart division, who gains unwanted media attention after he is filmed beating a black man on the streets of LA. In his mind, he is being unfairly singled out, after the man he beat had crashed into his police car, and then pushed his door into Brown’s stomach before attempting to flee the scene. But police officials don’t buy that, and Joan Confrey (Sigourney Weaver) and Bill Blago (Steve Buscemi) both want him dealt with, or for him to apologise for what he did and retire. Brown is not that way inclined to put it mildly and later returns to the job, despite public protests demanding his removal.
Dave can hardly find respite from his job in his personal life, as he has two daughters from two wives (Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche, who play sisters) and they all live together despite both sisters growing tired of his presence. He likes a drink and other women too, spending most of his time in the same bar picking up women. Robin Wright gives a good performance as one of those women, a lawyer named Linda Fentress. But this is very much Harrelson’s movie. He is in every scene, as his personal life and his career start to crumble around him. As things spiral out of control for him, he’s investigated by Internal Affairs agent Kyle Timkins (Ice Cube), and he turns to friend Hartshorn (Ned Beatty) for help that will have consequences that only succeed in making things worse.
Moverman shares a writing credit with James Ellroy, the author who has written so memorably in the past about the LAPD and police corruption (If you haven’t already, you really MUST read his LA Quartet, which includes LA Confidential), but it seems that the two did not really work together that closely. Ellroy wrote the original draft of the script, which the producers of the movie apparently thought was too sprawling and complex, asking Moverman to work on it and make it more cinema-friendly. Overman has suggested that the two may not have been in agreement over what was cut or changed from Ellroy’s draft, and the plot of the movie does seem to be missing Ellroy’s style.
When Harrelson was given the gig of announcing this year’s Oscar nominations, he made a quip about Rampart (in theatres soon) not being on the list anywhere. While Harrelson could certainly feel a little aggrieved at not getting a nomination for his excellent performance as Dave Brown, the movie itself is far from a classic. Unless James Ellroy decides to make his feelings known about the movie, it seems like we’ll only know Overman’s thoughts on it. Despite Harrelson’s performance, the movie is missing something, with a less than satisfying conclusion, and lacking the characters, dialogue and even wit of Ellroy’s novels.
Rampart is worth watching for Harrelson’s performance, but don’t expect to be raving about it to friends afterwards.