As soon as I heard that Rampart was based on an original story and co-written by James Ellroy, it immediately grabbed my attention as something I needed to see. Ellroy is my favourite author, foremost for writing the ‘Underworld USA Trilogy’ of books, starting with the incredible American Tabloid, but also for the ‘L.A. Quartet’ of books, the third of which is L.A. Confidential. This is how most people will know Ellroy’s work and L.A. Confidential is a very good film, but despite being a good adaptation it doesn’t get anywhere close to competing with what is on the written page. I think having read the book before seeing the film at the cinema has always meant I’ve been somewhat restrained in my praise for the celluloid version, which is testament to the writing. All Ellroy’s books are incredibly dense, with intricate labyrinthine plotting that’s full of corruption, duplicity, and vivid ultraviolence, all the while examining the dark souls of men in power and their extreme moral codes. The prose is electrifying, with a unique style that can change from book to book that just pops off the page and grips you with its perfect phrasing and diction. I can’t recommend the books enough, but they’re not an easy read and you need to know what you’re getting yourself into.
Watching Rampart you can definitely tell it’s from the mind of James Ellroy as all of the key ingredients are in place – it’s 1999 and corrupt Los Angeles police officer Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) has just been videotaped violently beating a member of the public in the middle of the street. Much to the chagrin of the senior officers at the Rampart station he's based out of, this creates a media storm they don’t need as they are already dealing with multiple corruption issues in-house. This leads to Brown further spiralling out of control as he unwittingly keeps pulling at the thread that will cause his career to fall apart whilst his complicated home life unravels.
This is Harrelson’s film. He’s electrifying as Brown, playing the character with a menace that’s come from the corruption that has seeped deep into his core over all his years on the job. There’s no way he can change and he has no desire too, which is clear from his conversations with the top brass over what to do about his situation. He's intelligently loquacious and knows how to get his way, which we see in the scenes where he picks up women in a bar, most notably a lawyer played by Robin Wright who appears to be as deeply damaged as he is, but she's not the only one being used here. There’s something quite dark going on in the scenes between them, like they’re walking a fine line to destruction and it’s never totally clear what her agenda is. Brown's home life is even more complicated, having two kids with two sisters (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon) who live next to each other, whilst he lives amongst them but not really with them. They seem to resent him but put up with him, his eldest daughter actively despises him but the scenes of him bonding with his younger daughter give the humanity that’s needed to balance this character. As ever with Ellroy’s writing, relationships with women are never straight forward.
After another significant incident that moves Brown further into the crosshairs of his colleagues, the story seems to lose its focus, moving further away from what might be bigger corruption issues endemic in the police force. At the time of watching this was quite frustrating, but ultimately the film reveals itself to be a character study of a man fighting to survive any way he can, who can’t improve himself beyond where he is now. Any hinted at wider political machinations are just there in the background, never expounded upon. I appreciate that it wasn’t the intention of Rampart, but I would like to have seen more of this side of things as I think it would’ve given the film more intrigue, rather than relying on Brown’s past and what he may or may not have actually done.
I quite liked Oren Moverman’s direction. The film felt suitably gritty and raw, and the camera has an interesting momentum to it, regularly moving when you wouldn’t expect it too. In one scene in particular, when Brown is debating his actions with his seniors, the camera is constantly moving in a circular motion around the table, moving across and past people before they’ve finished speaking, cutting to the next person talking, or sometimes not even showing them, but the camera never stops. It’s unusual but quite intriguing, as is a shot of a conversation in a restaurant filmed from behind, but rather than being framed from over a shoulder or at an angle so you can see Brown talking, the back of the other person’s head completely obscures Brown. It's nice to see something non-traditional. Also worth a mention is the impressive cast that's been assembled - aside from those mentioned earlier, Sigourney Weaver, Steve Buscemi, Ben Foster, Ice Cube and Ned Beatty all pop up, mostly in small roles, but all of whom are good.
So did Rampart live up to the expectations I had based on Ellroy’s previous writings? Well, yes and no. The writing/dialogue was very good and the story was interesting to a point, but it could’ve done with more of the bigger picture rather than tightening the focus on Brown. Harrelson was excellent in this role, perfectly cast and thoroughly convincing - he is very good at this type of character, as we know. The direction had enough to keep it intriguing and I liked it’s stylistic little plays with convention, but overall the film didn’t offer enough to make it stand out as anything special. I haven't seen The Messenger, Moverman's previous film, so am unable to compare it to that, but Rampart is a better film than Street Kings, Ellroy’s last screenwriting effort, which also featured many similar themes. It's fair to say that L.A. Confidential remains the definitive on-screen statement for Ellroy's writing.