Rampart’s Red Glare

I’m a fan of Oren Moverman’s The Messenger, especially for its standout performances from Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster and for the highly charged material: military men whose duty is to inform relatives that their loved ones have died in service to their country. Each visit to a new house is a new opportunity for drama, and the way the job wears on the characters is nicely reflected in their changing relationship. Structurally, the movie is fairly loose and episodic, but it doesn’t seem to matter much. Each visit to a new house is like a separate story in a collection, all of it held together by the changing relationship between the men and by the romance Ben Foster’s character finds.

Moverman likes the soul’s dark places, and this tendency is admirably reflected in Rampart, which came and went in my town. The film reunites Harrelson and Foster to good effect. Harrelson plays “Date Rape Dave” Brown, a corrupt LAPD cop at the end of the 90’s, and though we’ve seen more than our share of this character (from Bad Lieutenant to The Shield to Training Day and beyond), Harrelson’s performance adds a quality we haven’t seen in many of these efforts. Despite his character’s corruption, Harrelson plays him as wounded. No one gets him. No one understands the kinds of pressures he’s under. Everyone wants to focus on his negative qualities and on none of his virtues. It’s as if every scene ends with him saying, in effect, “What? I’m the bad guy here?”

As always, Foster, too, is excellent, though he has too little to do this time out. And Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche, as Brown’s ex-wives who also happen to be his ex-sisters-in-law, play their parts with a compelling mixture of anger and regret. Robin Wright also gives a strong performance as the mystery woman Brown meets in a bar. And there are surprising cameos from Steve Buscemi, Sigourney Weaver, Robert Wisdom, and Ned Beatty.

Where the film goes soft, it seems to me, is at the level of story. The episodic quality of The Messenger seems justified by the material. But in Rampart, the disconnected quality of the scenes gives the film the feel of an actors’ showcase, an elaborate reel to show off the actors’ talents.

We know Brown’s marriages have fallen apart, and that his ex-wives are tolerating his bad behavior less and less. We know also that he’s being investigated by the force for his excesses. But these conflicts seem isolated. They don’t build enough. The internal affairs investigator turns out to be only the most minor of characters. Even when he finds the evidence he needs to put Brown away, he inexplicably decides to wait before arresting Brown.

I think I know why Moverman puts plot on the back burner.

I’ll bet he didn’t want to be caught up in a tedium of a police procedural, the kind of thing we see on most TV cop shows, where most of the dialogue is exposition parceled out to two-dimensional characters. Instead, he wanted to focus on the corrupt cop as a tragic hero, giving him room for his rage and shame and self-pity: Lear on the heath . . . with a badge and a Glock. A film that’s too heavily plotted might not have given his actors room to vent. Still, his choice makes for a film that doesn’t build so much as repeat its key points. In other words, it has all the character it needs, but it lacks the proper combination of story, structure, and momentum.

Hard to blame Moverman, when so many Hollywood movies have structures that seem to have come off an assembly line and characters whose back-stories are about as thin as their Lycra body suits. And Rampart is better than most movies out there. Still, I was hoping for more.

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Mechanical Breakdown

One-sheet for The Mechanic

The Mechanic (2011)
Director: Simon West
Writers: Lewis John Carlino and Richard Wenk
Stars: Jason Statham, Ben Foster, and Donald Sutherland

SPOILER ALERT!

When you watch a movie like The Mechanic, it’s as if the characters themselves haven’t seen a movie since 1964, when, for ten minutes, it was a surprise to find that a politician or a higher-up in law enforcement turned out to be the villain. Who doesn’t know that, in movie-land, the people you trust most will turn out to be the bad guys? Who doesn’t know that the young apprentice to the hit man will eventually turn on him? Have I spoiled the movie for you? Really? The trailer itself gives these plot points away.

It may be that the material was fresher in its first incarnation as the Charles Bronson movie of the same name in 1972. Jason Stathan wields his grizzled snarl. And Ben Foster continues to play the kind of guy your mom warned you about (“Do you have to hang out with that Bennie? There’s something not right about that boy.”). And Donald Sutherland does a nice turn as the wheelchair-bound mentor to the assassin. Another sad example of the best actor in the room getting the smallest part, mostly as the exposition mule. That may not be entirely fair. Foster showed his chops in The Messenger. And Stathan may be more than the high-kicking killing machine he always plays. There just isn’t that much meat on this bone for these boys to gnaw on. Stathan and Foster each plays his part at a continuously high pitch of intensity—all crescendo and no diminuendo. Their performances are so boxed in by the simple-minded story that they aren’t allowed to play the full range of human emotion. You take the jobs you’re offered, I guess.

Simple-minded how? Our killers shoot up and blow up half the city, including our hero’s house on the bayou (the true star of the movie), but they never worry about leaving fingerprints, DNA, or witnesses. But that’s OK. This is a movie where evidence, witnesses, cops, and, for that matter, the laws of physics and probability would only slow the story down.

The writing is serviceable but lacks the leanness of the original, by Lewis John Carlino. Compare a revealing moment from Steve, the young assassin-in-training, from each movie. During one of the rare quiet moments in the new movie, he tells Arthur, his mentor, “I’ve always had this anger inside me.” It’s the definition of on-the-nose dialogue, the thing screenwriters try to avoid because it addresses an issue too directly. In the original movie, albeit in a different scene, Steve says, “My friends are so happy they’re killing themselves.” It’s a much more interesting revelation of character as well as being a funny paradox.

One bit of bad writing in the new movie jumps right off the screen. A character tells our hero, “I’m going to put a price on you that’s so high when you look in the mirror, your reflection will want to shoot you.” Kind of funny. The only problem is the character’s supposed to be trying to intimidate our hero, not make him laugh. Fortunately for him, Jason Stathan never laughs. It’s prohibited by his contract. At most he’s allowed a sardonic crinkle.

The title must refer to the director, Simon West, who proves that he can deliver a movie with all the originality of a photocopy. The direction is serviceable, but in service to what? Look, I like a good action-thriller as much as the next guy, but The Mechanic just makes you want to watch better examples of the breed—The Professional, Three Days of the Condor, Marathon Man, Le Femme Nikita—movies that don’t let the narrow limits of the form keep them from surprising you. All the loud, bright explosions of half-hearted efforts like The Mechanic are meant to hide the fact that there are no true surprises here, and that the only real victims of assassination are character, plot, and a few hundred billion brain cells.