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Rampart (15)

Woody Harrelson’s Cheers-ness can’t save this cop flick.

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.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The God Wars

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis