Why isn’t Woody Harrelson a bigger star? Well, last week he nearly was, after an ill-advised foray into the world of Reddit with a fan interview that saw him accused of crashing a high school prom and sleeping with a girl who he never called again. But enough about that - as Woody said in the IAMA - "let's focus on the film people". Woody's ability to play likeable preppy metro-nerds and likeable wild-eyed sociopaths resulted in some of the most assured (and in retrospect, surprisingly timeless) performances of my youth - in both White Men Can’t Jump and Natural Born Killers respectively. Perhaps appearing as the foil in Will & Grace lowered Harrelson’s collective stock. Perhaps getting utterly fucked up did.
Either way, all that malarkey seems to have panned out. Fantastic turns in the likes of North Country, The People Versus Larry Flynt, Transsiberian, Zombieland and his second Oscar nomination for 2009’sThe Messenger have kept him on even keel for a good decade or so, even if he’s not been headlining metroplexes. Rampart, directed by the latter's Oren Moverman and from the pen of LA Confidential’s James Ellroy, is a surprisingly brisk and entertaining drama about one morally ambiguous cop's descent into paranoia.
It takes its cues from the real life Rampart scandal and its title from Rampart Boulevard. The Rampart scandal involved corruption amongst anti-gang police units in the densely populated western districts of Los Angeles between ’97-’99. A combination of escalating media interest along with several instances of white-on-black violence led to internal investigations into the misconduct of more than 70 officers, involving charges of falsifying evidence, assault, rape and murder. It didn't look good when it turned out that officers were in Suge Knight's pocket. As a result, Rampart is one of the most scrutinized and well-documented dents in the integrity of American policing with ramifications that still echo over a decade later.
For such a blackspot on the American police force, the film is surprisingly airy and easy to watch, in part due to Ellroy’s story spring-boarding from the reality. Starting in ’99, Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) is cynical cop co-habiting in a surreal polygamist relationship with two sisters, while basking in heroic status at the Rampart district station. After being caught on camera beating a black driver, his past behaviour is called into serious question, as is his department's. As his life begins to unravel, Brown searches for a way out while internal investigations unearth more and more on his questionable past.
Ellroy twists up a detective story of corruption with esoteric self-serving goals and frayed alliances, all played out from Brown’s point of view. But underneath all the bluster, we’re ultimately served a story of past and present policing methods. An evolution abruptly played out before a backdrop of litigious media scrutiny – the blue collar versus the white collar, strategy versus tactics. Copious twists and turns seem crowbarred in for dramatic effect, with a surprisingly weak pay-off.
Harrelson’s delicious performance is full of self-centred injustice, as his methods become called into question by senior management. Looking toned and spritely, his Vietnam vet-turned-cop is brimming with stubbornness, driving each scene forward until his slow but eventual collapse. Brown is very much an individual endured rather than endorsed and Harrelson’s paradoxical successive moments of the agressive misogynist and the slick Casanova present themselves purely by a masterful shift mannerism and timing – truly a joy to watch.
But as Brown unravels, so does Overman’s direction. The close-cropped roving camera becomes errant and distracting. Ellroy’s script too loses momentum, imposing its own barriers (dreamlike club sequences, repeated visits to a lawyer's obscenely plush condo) to bulk out the final 20 minutes or so. Harrelson too paints his co-stars into a corner - grizzled interactions with Ice-T and Cynthia Nixon arestaccato with only Anne Heche matching him in grit, but too late to realign the experience.
Rampart’s narrative and directorial style might be exaggerated almost to the point of fault, but at its heart it's a complex and nuanced performance from Harrelson. Equally likeable and detestable, it’s a fantastic showcase for one of cinema’s more paradoxical actors.