Woody Harrelson rampages through this bad cop drama in a haze of cigarette smoke as the volatile David Brown, a conflicted and unsociable LA police officer.
Brown must balance the various tangents of his existence: his two daughters, two ex-wives (sisters) and a multitude of lawsuits, with his primary concern – his job. After numerous suspensions and disciplinaries he descends into a chaotic, drug-riddled and alcohol-fuelled downward spiral, barely keeping himself sane.
This is director Oren Moverman’s second feature after The Messenger, a heartfelt but slightly underwhelming depiction of the soldiers whose job it is to deliver notices of death to the bereaved families. That also starred Harrelson, as well as Steven Buscemi and Ben Foster who both make appearances, albeit brief ones, in Rampart.
Herein lies one of the film’s key issues. Harrelson has so much of a monopoly on the screen time that there’s very little left for any of the other actors to get to grips with their characters, leaving them feeling flat and uninteresting. Brown’s family life is relatively engaging, but the various other plot threads are underdeveloped and thus largely redundant.
In his lead part, Harrelson shines as the crooked protagonist, taking no prisoners in a role that is full of presence and energy. While it is difficult to empathise with his plight due to his remarkably amoral approach to policing, the film tries to ground his character as a Vietnam war veteran, thus providing our entry point for empathy. Unfortunately, it’s a part of his persona that is underplayed, with a decision made instead to devote most of his shots to chain smoking and hip flash-chugging at inappropriately early hours.
This badass-ery is entertaining, but it wears thin as the film meanders into its latter third. You’ll make a hopeful attempt to latch onto any of the available immersion points – Do we want him to reestablish his family? Do we want him to clear his name in the police department? Do we want him to just continue roaming around LA being a nutcase?
The answer is of course any of the above, which are all curiously undelivered.
At its heart, Rampart feels more like a feature-length episode of a TV series than it does a movie. In fact, it contains more than a few parallels with The Shield (this reviewer’s number one television drama), which had a protagonist with equal morals, similar peripheral characters, and an identical camerawork ethos. In fact, when Robert Wisdom made an appearance as an almost identical police figure as he portrayed in The Wire, it was momentarily tricky to remember the events onscreen were in fact amounting to a film.
The aforementioned camerawork will be one of the more divisive aspects of the piece. It is often experimental but for the most part slick, artistic and pleasingly original, with only one scene – where Harrelson sits around a table with Buscemi and Sigourney Weaver with the camera constantly panning right – standing out as a real rotten apple; and it really is rotten, baffling and a touch nauseating.
While the inclusion of Sigourney Weaver in a particularly small role may seem strange, it is the introduction of Ice Cube as Kyle Timkins, an IA agent with a bone to pick with Brown, that descends the picture into unbelievability. If your suspension of disbelief was tested before this point by Brown’s remarkably prolific hold over women and continued evasion of being fired from his job, then the appearance of the star of Are We There Yet? and Are We Done Yet? may push you over the edge.
Ultimately, a sharp script and notable central performance do not save this fast-paced drama from feeling empty. It’s a fun ride for an hour or so, but then it begins to stretch, finally bursting into a vacuum of underwhelm. Unless you are a massive Woody Harrelson fan, you’d be better off sitting down for a watch/rewatch of The Shield.