A great performance does not make a great movie. People tend to forget that sometimes. The best example in recent years is The Wrestler. Although still a good movie and certainly recommendable, its story wasn’t as captivating or as complex as it thought it was. Mickey Rourke was breathtaking and deserved to be standing on that stage during awards season clutching an Oscar just as much as Sean Penn was for Milk, but the movie that surrounded that performance simply wasn’t up to his level. The same can be said for this week’s expanding release, Rampart. Woody Harrelson is terrific in the lead role, even as the movie struggles to find what it is it wants to say. It’s good, but given its lack of awards recognitions, it fell far short of film glory.
The film takes place in Los Angeles in 1999, during the famous LAPD Rampart scandal where more than 70 officers were charged with misconduct that included everything from covering up evidence to unprovoked murders. Harrelson plays David Brown, one of the cops suspected of unethical behavior, who, after being caught on tape violently beating a fleeing motorist after an accident, goes under investigation for his behavior.
All of that is fine and dandy and it creates a perfect backdrop for what could have been a wonderful drama. There’s corruption, violence, cover ups and all kinds of struggles, both internal and external, that the character has to face. With a clear idea of what it was going for, Rampart could have been a intriguing character study, but as is, you never truly get a sense of Officer Brown’s personality, despite Harrelson’s gripping performance (which is one of the main reasons this movie still succeeds), because you never get to see it. Instead, most of his personality traits are simply read off in passing dialogue. At one point, his daughter calls him homophobic, yet he has no interaction with a gay person throughout the entire film. She also calls him a racist, but as far as the viewer can tell, he’s only called a racist because the person he’s caught beating up on camera is black (and you get the feeling he would have done that no matter the person’s race). She even goes so far as to label him as sexist, but no scenes support that claim. In fact, the only four people in the entire world he cares about are female. Sure, when he picks women up at bars, he’s a little forward, but sexual aggression does not equate to sexism.
The only thing she gets right is when she calls him a misanthrope. As he expressly states, he hates everyone equally and, although this fact negates nearly every other label attached to his character, it provides for the most interesting sections of the film. His cold demeanor and brutal tactics don’t seem to stem solely from his reckless disregard for the rules. They seem to have evolved from the practices of those he works with. For instance, after making the news for beating that motorist to the edge of death, he is greeted with cheering and applause by his fellow police officers. Only a select few, mainly the ones investigating him, seem to have a moral compass. His brutal behavior reflects the culture of his job and those around him. As time goes on, his past actions begin to look more like inevitabilities than poor decisions.
Nevertheless, the meaning of all this is left vague. Whatever Rampart is trying to say about Officer Brown, the Rampart scandal or simply police corruption in general gets lost in its own maze of contradictions, but Harrelson keeps the movie afloat, even though his supporting cast isn’t the strongest in the world, especially Ice Cube, whose proven ineffective screen presence is that much more noticeable when opposite a veteran such as Harrelson. One could make the argument that the potency of the supporting characters is what makes a character study, especially one like this where the protagonist’s line of work forces him to interact with others. It’s a completely valid point and a suitable critique of this movie, but Harrelson is so good, he makes you forget all that and appreciate the film for its strengths rather than its weaknesses.
Rampart receives 3/5