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Review: RAMPART (AFI Film Fest 2011)

Rampart isn't a sweeping epic about corruption in the LAPD; it's a confined, intense character study about one man who has to carry the weight of the department's struggles on his shoulders and the pressures that arise from that burden. Co-written by Los Angeles crime fiction master James Ellroy (L.A. ConfidentialThe Black Dahlia), this modern noir has all the trademarks of an Ellroy tale: corruption, scandal, vice, murder, and moral ambiguity. But even paired with some fantastic performances, those token elements can't overcome the film's slogging pace and erratic direction. 

Dave Brown (Harrelson) is a cop on the edge. It's 1999, and he works L.A.'s Rampart Division, under fire in the media for possible scandal and corruption. He's hit by a car while on patrol, and the other driver takes off running; Brown doesn't take kindly to this, so he runs down the driver and viciously beats him with his night stick. Unfortunately for Brown and the already-in-trouble LAPD, the whole incident is caught on tape and becomes the newest story for the media. Thanks to an aging friend with connections on the force (Ned Beatty), Brown starts to suspect there's a conspiracy afoot to distract from the real issues in the department.

For me, Harrelson's towering performance is the only thing that keeps Rampart interesting. The veteran actor is quick on the delivery with Ellroy and Moverman's occasionally snappy dialogue, but he can also wind it back and allow the audience to see his performance manifest itself just behind his steely eyes. It's implied many times that his character is crazy, but I think we're given just enough to assume he knows exactly what he's doing at all times - which, considering some of his actions in this film, is an even scarier prospect than insanity.

His relationship with his bizarre family unit - he lives with his two ex-wives, who happen to be sisters, and his two daughters, one from each mother - is mostly communicated through exasperated sighs and sullen grunts from his eldest daughter (played by Scott Pilgrim's Brie Larson), and intermittent emotional outbursts with the matriarchs (played by Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon). He spends his nights picking up random women like Linda (Robin Wright) in bars, and his days battling the talking heads of the police department and the district attorney (Sigourney Weaver and Steve Buscemi, respectively). No one else approaches Harrelson's level, so most of the movie is, sadly, pretty boring to watch.

Stylistically, Moverman is heavily influenced by modern depictions of Los Angeles police stories like Training Day and the FX series "The Shield." This isn't the slick downtown portrayed in Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive or Michael Mann's Collateral; it's the dirty in-between areas of Hollywood on display here, mirroring the collapsing professional and mental state of the film's protagonist. But Moverman's direction is all over the place: there's a distractingly trippy sex club sequence in the middle of the film, and even a Scorsese homage using a rotating camera during a large conversation (except Moverman's camera wildly spins while Scorsese's effortlessly glides). The director also employs some crazy sound design techniques, relying on distractingly loud background music that suddenly cuts out for dramatic effect during a scene change. There's very little consistency, and if this was done intentionally to mirror the character's struggles, it wasn't a particularly inspired tactic.

Harrelson's work was certainly praiseworthy (there are rumblings of an Oscar nomination in his future), but ultimately it wasn't enough to keep me fully connected to the story. There were multiple instances in which I nearly fell asleep, which, unfortunately, is a testament to the film's trudging pace and lack of compelling plot points. The last act is nearly unbearable as it drifts toward a conclusion that is only satisfying for one reason: the film is over. Rampart arrives in theaters in January of 2012. Until next time...

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