Film Review – Rampart
In the trailer of Oren Moverman’s latest film, Rampart (2011), a quote says that “Woody Harrelson is the most corrupt cop you’ve ever seen on screen.” I would guess that that statement is fairly accurate. The character Harrelson plays, L.A. police officer Dave Brown, is not a good man. Heck, he’s not even a descent man. Brown is a down-and-dirty son of a gun in the worst way possible. He’s a hateful, misogynistic, egocentric, adulterous drunk who does whatever he wants, all the while hiding behind the protection of his badge and the power of his gun. When it comes to cinematic anti-heroes, you can’t get much worse than this guy. I usually like protagonists that tiptoe that moral line, who do questionable things as a means to an end. It’s much more interesting to see a person who has faults and eccentricities; it makes their journey much more fascinating to watch and analyze. So why exactly didn’t that work for me here?
For one thing, Officer Brown is such a terrible person that he becomes almost a caricature. If you’ve ever seen a film that had a corrupt cop in it, then you’ll recognize the kind of pattern we’re working with here. The thing for me is that Brown felt more like an amalgamation of every dirty cop aspect in the dirty cop handbook. He patrols the Los Angeles streets slowly behind mirrored sunglasses with a constant grimace on his face; he drinks and medicates heavily; he cheats on his loved ones constantly; he brutalizes people with his baton and blackmails others into giving him everything that he wants. At one point he’ll claim that he doesn’t hate anybody and is a good person, but then he immediately flips around with one of his racist speeches or a cove- up to a crime that he committed himself. Now, these elements don’t necessarily work as a detriment to his character, but after watching the movie, it felt as though that is all there is to him. We don’t see any kind of redemptive forces working at play—sure, there are hints about his duty in Vietnam and certain instances where he takes down criminals—but all that is glossed over by his dark nature.
I’m not requiring that he be a good guy, but I needed something to make me interested in following his story. The further I got into the film, the less invested and more turned off I was by his actions, so that by the end of the movie, nothing about him left any kind of resonance. That makes it hard to root for a guy who, throughout the entirety of the film, tries to cover up and get away with a selfish crime that he committed, evading investigators at every corner while digging an even deeper hole for himself. I tend to like movies about people who try to evade being captured after making some sort of bad decision—that usually leads to some great opportunities for suspense. But here, Dave doesn’t seem remorseful for what he did at all. If he were to go back in time, I would assume that he would commit the crime over just the way he did before, and go about his business without blinking an eye. He walks around on a pedestal of righteousness, fully aware that he’s probably the worst person he knows, but unwilling to make himself better (at least legally). Dave’s entire life is made up of quirks and absurdities that are hinted at but not portrayed well enough for us to create links to his nature. The “relationship” he has with the sisters, Catherine (Anne Heche) and Barbara (Cynthia Nixon), feels odd for the sake of being odd, and I’m afraid that the history I felt between him and his daughter Helen (Brie Larson) was an accurate one.
It’s too bad, really, because for a movie that I felt was so underwhelming, it had a surprisingly stacked cast all around. We have Nixon and Heche as previously mentioned; Robin Wright as an attorney who makes a connection with Brown; Steve Buscemi and Sigourney Weaver as the other attorney going after him and the counselor who advises him to run while he can, respectively; Ned Beatty and Ben Foster as two of the few people who will still make an effort to even talk to him; and Ice Cube as the investigator hot on his tail. Woody Harrelson, teaming up with Moverman after their work on The Messenger (2009) resulted in a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, does what he can to instill life in a character I found to be lifeless. While people may not mention him when talking about the best actors in the business, I’ve always found Harrelson to be solid with his roles, dramatic or comedic, and I would like to see more attention come his way. His performance here was the one good element the film had going, and in a way he almost makes up for many of its weaknesses by himself.
While Harrelson’s acting was certainly a bright spot, it just wasn’t enough for me to call Rampart a satisfying viewing experience. It was tough for me to watch this character spiral downward so fast and so viciously, himself knowing that he was falling into despair, and not really caring about what happens at all. To me, his emotional arc throughout the movie was completely flat; he was the same person at the end as he was in the beginning. Why should we care about this person, if he doesn’t care about himself? We’ve seen this type of character so often in so many other movies about corrupt authorities that if we were to place him next to all the other crooked cop characters, would he stand out from the rest at all? I’ve seen these kinds of people so often recently that if a movie were to made with a cop that was just a straight arrow good guy it would come almost as a breath of fresh air.
Final Grade: C+