Though he began as something of a joke, Woody Harrelson has turned into one of the screen's best actors. He has the long, angular face that the camera likes, and has a drawl that Matthew McConaughey must have studied in grade school. He has a sharp profile and an ageless look, and has managed not to let baldness confine him to demeaning oddball roles.
The joke status descended upon him because he had moved from TV's Cheers to starring across Demi Moore and Robert Redford in Indecent Proposal, in which the drawling Harrelson proposed to play an architect. Adrian Lyne's 1993 film is so weird in and of itself – its cast, its differences from the source novel – that a book could be written just on its implications. No one would read it, but the book would be interesting. But a few years later with Natural Born Killers Harrelson began to show gravity on screen, and after The People vs. Larry Flynt he was taken seriously, as a screen cowpoke, a druggie, a comic actor, and documentary narrator. Often he's been the best thing in a movie (2012), and he has shown a remarkable range, from a riveting yet hilarious cameo in No Country for Old Men to kudos for The Messenger.
For Rampart, Harrelson has re-teamed with Messenger's director, Oren Moverman, a writer turned director, and Mr. Moverman makes great hay with Harrelson's look and manner. The film begins with closeups of Harrelson's profile and you realize that we have a new Roy Scheider, who was similarly so lovingly captured on film by William Friedkin in Sorcerer.
Rampart is a bad-cop film and there have been plenty of those in recent years, from Internal Affairs, to Mulholland Falls, to Training Day, to the series The Shield, to Dark Blue, itself also taken from the work of James Ellroy, as is Rampart. Dark Blue took place in 1992 and Rampart is set in 1999; Dark Blue ends with the start of the Rodney King riots; Rampart is set in and around the time of the Rampart police scandal in Los Angeles. Like Bad Lieutenant, the narrative follows its main character, Dave Brown, around for an undisclosed frame of time, in this case from the period in which he brutally beats a suspect who has bashed into his squad car, to the later resolution of his issues.
Unapologetically racist – he would call it realism – Brown is a tough cop who pushes the rules as far as they will go, drinks heavily, philanders, and so forth, but is not a crook, a pimp, racist, gun runner, or any of the other crimes with which the 100+ Rampart cops were accused. Instead he is a reckless man whose life situation tightens around him as the story progresses. Among Brown's peculiarities is his having kids from two different women who are sisters (Cynthia Nixon, Anne Heche) and who happen to live next to each other. He still lives in back, and at the dinner table solicits sex for the night from each woman seriatim.
Rampart has a terrific cast, also including Ben Foster (who is also one of the producers, Steve Buscemi, Sigourney Weaver, Robin Wright, Ned Beatty, and Ice Cube. The film was shot on video by Bobby Bukowski and has a sun-baked luminosity that matches the weary, degraded city.1 Rampart is an excellent movie, difficult to take and complex about its central character, but given great weight by Harrelson's full on commitment.
1 Rampart is a production from Millennium Films, which is also producing the biopic of Linda Lovelace.