Saturday, 3 March 2012
Woody Harrelson is one of Hollywood’s most underrated actors. Perhaps he still suffers from comparisons with his namesake, Woody, the dumb barman he played in Cheers. But he’s an actor of enormous range who makes interesting and brave career choices: porn barons, serial killers, comic characters and blind men. Here, he adds corrupt cop to his roll-call of colourful characters – and it’s possibly his finest performance to date.
David Brown (Harrelson) is the dirtiest of dirty LAPD officers: a law unto himself. As the 90s end and the new millennium begins, a cleaner era of law enforcement is being ushered in, ending the scandal-hit decade which saw increased scrutiny of the police following incidents such as the racially aggravated assault on Rodney King. For Brown, this clean approach to policing is both an affront and a threat: he’s not beyond bullying female colleagues, intimidating witnesses and beating suspects.
When one such attack finds its way onto the TV news, Brown concludes he’s been set up by his own force in order to deflect attention from larger scandals. Refusing to apologise or resign, Brown fights his corner whilst downing cocktails of booze and drugs. As he schemes and plots, his unconventional family life begins to disintegrate as he realises the two sisters he lives with (both of whom have mothered his children) have grown to despise him.
The opening twenty minutes are a masterclass in character creation. In ruthlessly efficient fashion and with very spare dialogue, Brown is established as a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, reckless, dangerous, misogynistic bully. Nonetheless, he’s capable of great charm (effortlessly luring an attractive woman into bed) and intelligence: when called to account for his near-fatal assault he mounts a truly impressive and well-thought defence. That his defence is utterly immoral is beside the point.
What follows is the tale of a man caught in an inevitable downward spiral of crime and counter-crime, lies and self-deceit. Harrelson is magnificent as the conflicted lawman who yearns for the days when his father served the LAPD – days when engaging and collaborating with the enemy were occasionally necessary in the cause of the greater good. Screenwriter James Ellroy’s fingerprints are all over this tale of corruption and brutality – anyone who enjoyed hard-bitten dramas like LA Confidential will find much to admire here.
A great supporting cast featuring the likes of Robin Wright, Sigourney Weaver and Anne Heche are certainly playing second fiddle to the standout performance of Woody Harrelson’s career: an amoral, unlikeable bastard who somehow manages to earn our sympathy. Rampart is a bleak tale, but a truly gripping one.