Despite being the mind behind the brilliant L.A. Confidential, writer James Ellroy’s work rarely transitions well to the big screen. Much like graphic novelist Frank Miller, Ellroy needs a director who can temper his sometimes unnecessarily over the top and formulaic material into a watchable package. With Ellroy’s latest outing Rampart, director Oren Moverman show’s that he’s simply not up to the challenge leading to film that feels wholly indistinguishable from the author’s past big screen outings about dirty Los Angeles cops.
The year is 1999 and Woody Harrelson stars as police detective David Brown, a man feared by outsiders and police administrators and respected greatly by a lot of his fellow officers. Naturally, like most main characters in an Ellroy film, Brown is a bigoted, boozy, womanizing mess of a man with an innate sense of personal justice who deplores violence against women despite constantly using them as objects. Working out of the already disgraced Rampart division of the LAPD, Brown becomes a scapegoat for greater corruption following his disturbing beating of a man trying to flee the scene of a car accident. At the end of his rope and down on his luck, an increasingly desperate Brown finds himself tangentially involved in the robbery of an underground poker game that he intended to hit himself to pay for his legal defences.
Moverman’s film boasts an all star cast of big names showing up to deliver mostly consistent performances, with Harrelson showcasing even more of his movie star magnetism than usual in an effort to make the material work, playing Brown as a world class bullshit artist who uses his eloquent vocabulary and trival knowledge of past court precedents to get out of nearly any situation.
Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon also put in convincing work as the sisters Brown married, divorced, and had children with separately. Neither woman particularly likes Brown, but the different approaches they have to dealing with him are interesting to watch. Ice Cube has a nice, but far too brief role as an undercover investigator for the DA assigned to tail Brown everywhere he goes.
Ben Foster (who also produced the film) disappears under grime and a huge beard to play a homeless vet that Brown puts in touch with his current flame, a defence attorney (Robin Wright), who in typical Ellroy fashion manages to come across as a massive slut.
The only person who turns in a truly embarrassing performance, however, is the usually reliable Ned Beatty, here playing a retired cop “with more fingers in departmental cunt than most current guys” that might as well just be known as The Great Gazoo since he just pops up at random to say he’s going to help David, but just ends up making everything a thousand times worse. Beatty is tone deaf to the material and he comes across as Mickey Rooney trying to play Tony Montana.
The cast keeps the movie going, but Ellroy’s script (which Moverman also worked on at some point) holds no surprises for anyone who has sat through previous films in the author’s cinematic output. The same ground covered in Dark Blue, Street Kings, and Cop gets travelled across again here with nothing new added. The city is full of scum and villainy and it takes a villain to catch a villain, and so on and so forth. It’s such a routine and by the numbers story of the rise and fall of a dirty cop, that it becomes boring to watch in near record time. The audience isn’t supposed to feel sorry for Brown or necessarily agree with him on anything, but the fact that this character has nothing inventive or interesting to do drags the whole film down like a lead weight. Even worse the film feels the need to spell out all its hoary clichés with dialog like “I didn’t sell you out! You sold yourself out!” and “You’re an old school racist, misogynist, misanthrope. Either homophobic, or maybe you just hate yourself.” Those are more paraphrases since I didn’t want to include full exchanges, but the reality of that dialog is far worse.
In the hands of a more seasoned director, Ellroy’s material and tendency towards the sleazy could have worked, but Moverman seems disinterested in deviating too much from the material. Aside from a really awkward and misplaced sequence in a sex club, the whole movie feels almost like it’s on autopilot without any real destination in mind. It looks and sounds competently done, but it’s really a soulless piece of work. By the end of the film, where things are still far from resolved, the nagging questions the audience might have regarding the actual material still won’t even be enough for them to shake the fact that they’ve already seen this movie done better before.