Rampart: Woody Harrelson Saves a Go Nowhere Film
In case you haven’t noticed, Woody Harrelson has developed into one of today’s finest actors, and in Rampart he really puts to the test his stunning ability with a robust and charismatic performance that will undoubtedly command your complete attention. The role itself is well defined and rigidly structured, but what Harrelson brings to this performance of a corrupt Los Angeles cop facing his comeuppance is an intriguingly nuanced and complex character study of a completely amoral man. From the first frame to the last, Harrelson is a pure pleasure to watch as he adeptly carries the burden of a thoroughly unpleasant yet charming personality who learns nothing from his mistakes. His place in the world alters drastically he knows, however, ultimately he remains the same. And that is the only real problem with the film: the main character does not change.
Set in the near past of 1999 Los Angeles, veteran police officer David Brown (Harrelson) is portrayed as the last of the renegade cops of the nefarious Rampart Division. Not directly associated with the department’s main scandal, Brown faces an investigation of his own after being caught on tape using extreme, unnecessary force. Although he is undoubtedly a troublemaker with a questionable past (the murder of a rapist may or may not have been in the line of duty), Brown initially appears to be a working guy trying his best to take care of his emotionally estranged family, when he is suddenly placed in the position of having to struggle for his own survival. However, any initial geniality allotted the character via Harrelson’s past on screen personas (Woody from Cheers) is quickly wiped away as his officer Brown attempts to womanize everything in his path (including two ex-wives), plans a robbery, attempts to hustle the investigators assigned to his case, and obsessively tries to control the remnants of his strange family life. Even when it becomes quite clear that Brown is at the end of the line, he just doesn’t face up to the facts, resolving nothing.
Many things happen to Brown during the course of 98 screen minutes. However, his character doesn’t seem to be altered by any of the potentially life changing events. And this may be a huge problem with most audiences, because if the main character doesn’t change there is a risk of the viewer feeling as if nothing happened during the course of the movie. There’s certainly plenty going on all around Brown and to him, but the vague and inconclusive ending leaves a lot unsaid and certainly undetermined. It’s actually a pretty brilliant shot devised by director Oren Moverman (The Messenger) and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski (Dog Fight, The Messenger). I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s incredibly similar to the stunning final shot of an old 1932 film with Paul Muni, I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. Sensational title aside, the last image in this classic film is nearly identical to the one in Rampart and leaves the audience with the same sense of uncertainty for the hero’s fate.
Of course, the ending of the Paul Muni film was the result of a series of events that led to a radical change in the character’s personality, concluding with a sensational ending. By comparison, there is no final catharsis in Rampart. But then, modern audiences may not care that officer Brown exhibits no alteration as a result of his journey. The film provides a satisfying ride, full of titillating situations and tense drama performed by an impressive cast that includes Robin Wright as a criminal attorney uncontrollably drawn to Brown’s magnetism, Sigourney Weaver as a police department representative who’s trying to get Brown to see the dead end sign of his situation, Ice Cube as one of the investigators assigned to bring him down, Audra McDonald as one of many one-night stands, Cynthia Nixon as one of two sisters who are ex-wives, Ned Beatty as a retired cop with questionable motives, and Steve Buscemi in an unusually small throwaway role of a government official bent on cleaning up Rampart at all costs.
And then there’s Harrelson. As Officer David Brown he gives one of the most visceral performances of a dirty cop ever brought to the silver screen (including turns by Harvey Keitel and Nicholas Cage in the two Bad Lieutenant movies). It is a character that is so entrenched in his ways that he simply refuses to go along with the rest of the world around him. And perhaps that is the point. Since Brown will not adjust to a changing environment he must go the way of the rest of the corrupt police department, which has been left behind by a progressing society. It’s a sticky trick to pull off: purposefully stunting the lead for the sake of the story. However, it’s not so much of a challenge when you have some like Harrelson performing the illusion. In Rampart he proves beyond a doubt that he’s got the talent to pull off any feat of acting ingenuity.
Rampart, a film by Oren Moverman opens Friday, February 10th at The Landmark Theatre in Los Angels, and the Pacific Arclight in Hollywood. February 17th the film can also be seen at the Laemmle Noho 7 in North Hollywood, the Century Downtown 10 in Ventura, the Century Stadium 25 Theatre in Orange, the Century 20 Bella Terra in Huntington Beach, the University Town Center 6 Cinemas in Riverside, and the Century at the River 15 in Rancho Mirage.