Sunday, March 11, 2012

In Theaters: RAMPART (2011)

(US - 2011)

Directed by Oren Moverman.  Written by James Ellroy and Oren Moverman.  Cast: Woody Harrelson, Robin Wright, Steve Buscemi, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Foster, Ice Cube, Ned Beatty, Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, Brie Larson, Audra McDonald, Jon Bernthal, Jon Foster, Francis Capra, Robert Wisdom.  (R, 108 mins)

Oren Moverman's follow-up to his acclaimed 2009 film THE MESSENGER unfortunately falls into the "sophomore slump" category, despite a raw, riveting performance from Woody Harrelson.  The problem with RAMPART is that Harrelson's performance is all it has, and as great as it is, it can't carry the whole film, which plays like you're fast-forwarding through a season of THE SHIELD.  Dealing with the corrupt escapades of a bitter, racist, sexist, homophobic, misanthropic, hard-drinking, chain-smoking, womanizing, control-freak (did I miss anything?) LAPD cop in post-Rampart Scandal 1999, RAMPART begs the question:  Why this story?  Why now?  Why?  Don't look for answers.  There are none, and aside from Harrelson's searing portrayal, RAMPART is an almost total misfire.

Badass cop "Date Rape" Dave Brown (Harrelson), so nicknamed for a 1997 incident when he committed the premeditated murder of a known serial date-rapist (yet Internal Affairs doesn't have enough to charge him) is every bad image you can conjure of the LAPD (see above).  A bit of a celebrity with other cops, Dave's personal life is strange, to say the least.  His two ex-wives (Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon) are sisters who live next door to each other, and Dave lives in a bungalow in one of the backyards.  Each ex has a daughter by him, so the half-sisters are also first cousins.  When he can't get some casual sex from either ex, he picks women up at bars.  Still hounded by the date-rapist incident on a daily basis, Dave finds himself in a media shitstorm when he's videotaped beating a black man who plowed into his squad car and tried to run away.  Faced with mounting pressure from the department, the D.A.'s office, and his own lawyers, cash-strapped Dave gets a tip and tries to bust up an illegal card game and take the loot for himself, but he ends up killing a man and planting a gun on him.  Then things really start to go bad.

Harrelson is one of the best actors working today and rarely gets to show it, and RAMPART is up there with THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT and THE MESSENGER as possibly his finest work yet.  But the film is a rambling, unfocused, episodic mess.  I know it's all about the character, and there's some semblance of a story with the caught-on-camera beating, the planting of the gun, and his dysfunctional hook-up with a boozy attorney (Robin Wright), but RAMPART feels less like a cohesive film and more like blatant Woody Harrelson Oscar bait (the film, a prestige acquisition by Cannon cover band Millennium Films, was released briefly in NYC and L.A. in November 2011 to qualify for awards season, and only started expanding in limited release last month).  Harrelson is supported a truly impressive cast of big names and familiar character actors in cameos that prove to be more of a distraction than anything.  There's no opening credits, so the actors just appear, let Harrelson bounce off of them, then, in most cases, disappear.  Wright, Heche, and Nixon probably get the most screen time of the supporting cast, and there's also Sigourney Weaver as an LAPD attorney; Steve Buscemi as the ambitious D.A.; Ned Beatty as a retired cop with a mysterious agenda who keeps telling Dave that "forces are conspiring" against him (perhaps the most frustrating of RAMPART's several abandoned storylines, though we are granted the rare sight of Ned Beatty smoking a joint); Ice Cube as an Internal Affairs investigator; Ben Foster as a brain-damaged homeless guy; and THE WALKING DEAD's Jon Bernthal as a cop.  Brie Larson does some nice work as Harrelson's gay, angry teenage daughter with Nixon.

Moverman co-wrote the script with legendary crime and noir novelist James Ellroy, and a lot of the dialogue crackles with Ellroy's distinct, gloriously offensive prose.  But the story is just flimsy, slapdash, and ultimately pointless. However, between the disjointed storytelling, the abandoned plot points, the underwritten characters not named Dave Brown, and several stills online from scenes that aren't in the actual film, there's enough evidence to suggest that RAMPART was chainsawed in post-production and this is possibly a compromise version.  Still, Moverman resorts to some bizarre showboating directorial techniques to cover up that central void, whether it's an attention-seeking continuous pan around a desk during a meeting at the D.A.'s office, or some of the most distracting foot fetishizing this side of a Quentin Tarantino movie, or, in the film's worst sequence, a drug-fueled detour into a garish, strobe-lit sex club that seems like Moverman called in sick and asked Gaspar Noe to direct for a day. Woody Harrelson has matured into a great actor and this is an undeniably great performance.   But that performance needs some kind of foundation to give it structure and meaning, and as brilliant as Harrelson is, he isn't enough to keep RAMPART from looking like exactly what it is, at least in its released version:  a blatantly transparent attempt to get Woody Harrelson an Academy Award.

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