Film Review: RAMPART

Directed by Oren Moverman
Written by James Ellroy

There have been many adaptations of James Ellroy’s work: Cop, starring James Woods which was based on Blood on the Moon, The Black Dahlia with Josh Hartnett, LA Confidential with Russell Crowe, and Street Kings with Keanu Reeves, which featured a screenplay by James Ellroy. Now if you’ve read Ellroy as I have – which means in detail, faithfully, every book that he releases as well as seeing him on his spoken word tours (to me, James Ellroy’s spoken word is kind of like Iggy Pop) – you know that none of those films have come close to the full power of a James Ellroy crime novel. Ellroy novels are brutal visceral affairs that have not once been properly transferred to film…until now… sort of.

Woody Harrelson plays Dave “Date Rape” Brown, an old-school Vietnam Vet, and LAPD patrolman. The year is 1999 and the setting is a particular area of LA known as the Rampart division. Now historically the Rampart division is known for being one of the most corrupt areas of law enforcement in American history. Everything from uniformed police officers selling drugs, to armed robbery and murder-for-hire. That was the mid-90s – this is just after, as things were changing.

Harrelson’s character is the last of his kind. In the wake of all the scandals, the LAPD is going for a kinder, gentler public image. Brown by self-description is not a racist; he hates everyone equally and will not shy away from using what can only be described as brute force to get his point across. Then there is the matter of his nickname: “Date Rape.” Brown will neither confirm nor deny that during a previous time in his career he may or may not have killed a serial date rapist. Brown is also not above using his nickname and that story to pick up women in bars, which he does frequently. Brown has also fathered multiple children by two sisters, played by Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon. The living arrangement of the family is something to ponder.
If you’ve read Ellroy you will start to notice little things in the film that could have only come from Ellroy. Dave Brown is vintage Ellroy, from his nickname to his monologues, and is some one that only Ellroy could create.

From my past viewings of previously mentioned Ellroy film adaptations, I was prepared for the way they are usually watered down and stripped of the power and grit of James Ellroy’s work. Woody Harrelson as Dave Brown for the first time truly captures what a James Ellroy leading man really is. He chews on the scenery throughout the whole film. One scene in particular sticks out in my mind: Date Rape is in a pharmacy in plain clothes. He has just shaken down the Asian pharmacist for some sort of Rx and as he is standing next to a woman in line, he realizes that the pistol in his small of his back is not covered by his shirt. He looks around as he covers it up. For some reason that particular scene made me smile.

As I said before, Date Rape’s career is coming to a close. He is out of favors and the recent beating of a suspect, caught on film, has shown him that the exit door is a lot closer to him than he expected. Ned Beatty plays a sleazy ex-cop who is either guiding Date Rape or screwing him over. Ice Cube is an Internal Affairs investigator that Date Rape verbally skewers in a very humorous scene. The young actor Ben Foster (one of my personal favorites, who previously worked with Harrelson on the director’s other film The Messenger) is a wheelchair-bound homeless Vet who gives Date Rape street intel. In most films shot in LA, the city always looks the same You see the same things shot the same way. I really enjoyed the cinematography of this film. I’m not sure how to describe it, but there were many scenes that made me think, “I love the way they shot that.”

The one issue I had with Rampart is its lack of action. Ellroy’s novels have action sequences akin to a Peckinpah film. Rampart is a character study in the truest sense. There are violent acts, but it is not an action film. In contrast, Street Kings, another film that was based on an Ellroy screenplay, had plenty of action sequences, but lacked all of the character of an Ellroy novel. Keanu Reeves is not an Ellroy character in any world. There’s nothing wrong with the film as a character study – I enjoyed it – but it was not what I was expecting from an Ellroy penned script.

I hope that this film gives Ellroy the leeway to do more in Hollywood without the fear of being watered down. Harrelson embodies Date Rape well. A little-known fact about Woody Harrelson: his father was an organized crime hit man who was sentenced to life in prison for the killing of a federal judge. Harrelson should have gotten an Oscar nod for this film, but maybe because of the brutal nature of the character, or maybe because it was an Ellroy story itself, that didn’t happen. Rampart shows us the sign of a great new filmmaker in Oren Moverman, Woody Harrelson only gets better with age, and James Ellroy just needs a shot at film. Joe Carnahan, director of Narc, Smoking Aces, and Liam Neeson’s current film The Grey, at one time held the rights to Ellroy’s novel White Jazz. White Jazz – my favorite Ellroy book and probably one of my Top 5 All-Time favorite crime novels – would have been the perfect for Joe Carnahan. Supposedly George Clooney was attached to play the main character. If it had come to be, something that tells me that would have been the definitive adaptation of a James Ellroy work. For now that title goes to Rampart.

Dave Wahlman