It's easy to imagine Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) exploding into vivid life on the pages of a James Ellroy novel. The protagonist of Oren Moverman's second film Rampart – which the director developed from an Ellroy script – is a misanthropic, volatile, hard-drinking, womanising LAPD cop who swims in a sea of moral ambiguity. He has been given the nickname "Date Rape" by his colleagues, following his suspected but unproven murder of a serial rapist ("I can neither confirm nor deny," Brown says with a smirk, enjoying the lustre of this legend), and he's not averse to bending rules or beating the answers he wants to hear out of a suspect. He has gotten away with his corrupt and violent behaviour for over two decades – largely due to his quick-wittedness and ability to eloquently talk his way out of trouble – but when a camera catches him attacking a black driver who crashed into his patrol car, the walls of Dave Brown's life start to fall in on top of him.
All of this would be ripe material for one of Ellroy's vast, dense books – a man on the edge, his machismo being eroded by insecurities and paranoia. Unfortunately, when condensed into a single movie and embellished by some hopelessly misguided directorial choices, Rampart is a total disaster. Moverman and Harrelson's previous collaboration was The Messenger, an emotionally charged but restrained film that won plaudits for the debutant filmmaker and an Academy Award nomination for Harrelson. There's nothing restrained about their follow-up, however, with both the director and star turning it up to 11.
The problem with Rampart is that the filmmaking keeps drawing attention to itself. Simple dialogue scenes are shot from unusual angles, such as a meeting between Brown and a retired cop (Ned Beatty), during which the director cuts – seemingly at random – between close-ups, medium shots and even shots of the back of their heads. Instead of focusing on what was being said in the scene, I was focusing on Moverman's choices, and wondering what on earth was motivating them. Shortly after that scene we are treated to Brown's disciplinary hearing, which is filmed in an appallingly clumsy and hugely distracting 360-degree panning shot around the table that stands as one of the single worst pieces of camerawork I have ever seen in a movie. Rampart is an ugly movie, both in what it shows us and how it shows it to us, with Moverman and his cinematographer Bobby Bukowski opting for lurid, clammy lighting in the second half of the picture. An extended sequence in an underground sex club is supposed to mark Brown's irrevocable descent into the abyss, but it's overly stylised and straining way too hard to be in any way convincing.
In fact, very little about Rampart does convince. Dave Brown lives in adjacent houses with the two sisters (Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche) that he had consecutive relationships with, and the daughters each of those relationships left him with, with the five of them living as some kind of awkward quasi-family. There's also a gimmicky cameo from Harrelson's The Messenger co-star Ben Foster as a crippled addict who furnishes Brown with information, but his appearance comes off as nothing more than, well, a gimmicky cameo. Brown also strikes up a relationship with a lawyer (Robin Wright Penn), who may or may not be investigating him, but she never develops into anything other than a plot device, which is something that can be said for most of the supporting players. There's also the ever-present shadow of the real-life Rampart scandals that give the movie its name, but Moverman never explores any of this and what it meant for the LAPD in the 90's, trusting that the exploits of his film's central character will be sufficient to act as a microcosm of that widespread corruption.
Unfortunately, while Dave Brown is an arresting and explosive character, he is never a particularly interesting one. Instead of getting inside his head and understanding this man, the film just repetitively presents us with his repellent behaviour, which grows incredibly boring to watch. Perhaps a lack of context is the real issue. Bad Lieutenant brought the weight of its character's Catholic guilt to bear on his behaviour, Training Day viewed its bad cop through the eyes of an idealistic rookie, and Rampart's closest antecedent The Shield (the show's working title was Rampart) had almost 60 hours to explore the nuances and complexities of its characters and their relationships; and while this film is a platform for Harrelson to show how incendiary he can be as an actor, he's just shouting into a void. Rampart is an abysmal piece of work, and its botched anticlimax of an ending offers no reward for all those who have stuck with it.