Woody Harrelson’s Cheers-ness can’t save this cop flick, says Ryan Gilbey.
dir: Oren Moverman
Woody Harrelson's breakthrough role on the sitcom Cheers has not exactly been an encumbrance to his career as a dramatic actor, but neither has he ever quite dispelled the ghost of that other Woody, the bartender with a grin wider than the Charles River. It can't have helped that actor and character shared a name, or that Harrelson's first post-Cheers straight role was in Indecent Proposal, a film that had more laughs a minute than most comedies.
Only in Paul Schrader's The Walker, in which Harrelson played a gay man who escorts lonely wives, was there absolutely no prospect of one of Woody's gormless misunderstandings tumbling from his lips.
He did strong work as a gruff army captain breaking bad news to the families of fallen soldiers in The Messenger. Now he has teamed up again with that film's director, Oren Moverman, for Rampart. As Dave Brown, a cop in late-1990s Los Angeles, he looks like an Easter Island statue in shades, or a bullet with stubble scalp. The film portrays one man's dark night of the soul in gaudy, sun-frazzled colours.
Dave goes by the nickname "Date Rape" but don't get the wrong idea: he acquired that moniker after killing a man rumoured to be a rapist. On the other hand, you would still hesitate before asking Dave to open a village fete. As one character tells him: "You're a dinosaur, Date Rape. You're a racist, a sexist, a womaniser, a misanthrope and certainly homophobic." That's his daughter talking, proving that there are some sentiments a Hallmark card can't hope to cover.
Rampart takes its title from the LAPD division that became mired in accusations of brutality and corruption consistent with those aired in the film. That implicated an entire squad, whereas the movie (co-written by Moverman and the novelist James Ellroy) is a character study, isolating Dave to such an extent that he seems at times to be the only cop pounding the beat, the one scapegoat for an entire department's ills.
That's how Dave, with his overdeveloped persecution complex, sees it. He's aggrieved that his ex-wives (played by Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon), who each have a daughter by him and happen also to be sisters, want to move on. (They have all fallen into living together in a Big-Love-meets-The-Brady-Bunch kind of way.) Nor can he understand why the assistant DA (Sigourney Weaver) objects to him savagely beating a reckless motorist. He's irritated that an internal affairs investigation into his shooting of an armed robber is being conducted by an African American, Timkins (Ice Cube), though Dave denies charges of racism ("I hate all people equally"). When he picks up the scrawny Linda (Robin Wright) in a bar, what are the chances she'll represent her own species of trouble?
Harrelson's lightness of touch, that essential Cheers-ness, works in his favour as Dave; there's no danger he will succumb to the Method madness of Harvey Keitel in the 1992 Bad Lieutenant. It's a miracle his performance survives the movie's expressionistic visual clutter. The camera celebrates without condescension the fizzy, patchwork vitality of Echo Park, which forms part of Dave's beat; it's when actors enter the frame behind lattices of neon or marinated in infernal light that the trouble starts. No coloured filter has been spared, no oddball angle rejected. The vulture-like camera hovering above Dave is simple enough to rationalise, but what justification can there be for a conversation in which it drifts from left to right and back again whenever someone speaks? Enterprising cinemas would do well to stock travel-sickness pills at the popcorn counter in anticipation of this scene.
It's not the movie's fault that it can't equal the level of scrutiny brought to this subject over many series of the TV drama The Shield. But rejecting the pulp trappings of superficially similar films such as Street Kings and Internal Affairs doesn't automatically result in a more analytical approach. Sometimes you just end up without much in the way of tension, pace or narrative; sometimes a snazzy visual style isn't an expression of character or meaning - it's just a snazzy visual style. Even Woody could have told you, pulling pints behind the bar at Cheers.