I have always admired Woody Harrelson, whose body of work is often overlooked for one reason or another. He works less than some bigger stars, he isn't afraid to try anything, so maybe he floats into obscurity faster than some. And on top of his risk taking and his diversity he always delivers a solid performance and given whatever needs to be given to the role. It is his performance in Rampart that keeps the film from completely falling apart. Because, no matter how thin the movie becomes, no matter how poor the surroundings, Harrelson keeps thing afloat. But no performance can hold up under the weight of absurdity, and eventually Rampart crushes Harrelson's efforts. I admire the attempt to take a familiar story and try and spin it into something unique, but reality must exist in a film which poses as a realistic portrayal of police corruption.
Set in 1999, Rampart is the infamous police district in Los Angeles which became known for its corruption more than its police work. The late nineties was the pinnacle of LAPD wrongdoing, and David Brown (Harrelson) is perhaps the filthiest of all. He is everything a corrupt cop is made of in cinema, a racist, sexist, stealing, killing, drinking, lonely misanthrope. All of these things are shown gradually as we stay with Brown throughout. Brown also has an interesting home life, and by interesting I mean hard to buy as plausible. He lives next door to his two ex wives (Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche), sisters, each of whom have a daughter with Brown. And despite the fact that Brown is an asshole for the most part they all seem to get along and have dinner on a regular basis.
At the same time, Dave manages to bed women on a regular basis. One of these women is a feisty Defense Attorney played by Robin Wright, who falls into some sort of ambiguous relationship with Dave that never really makes much sense. To be honest, nothing about Dave's social life is realistic, even though it is sold as such. With such a turbulent home life, it is no wonder he can't keep things in line as a police officer.
If isn't one Internal Affairs investigation, it's another. He has been saddled with the moniker "Date Rape Dave" for supposedly murdering a rapist several years earlier. Early in the film, he is brought in for being caught beating a perpetrator to death on camera; not a good move in 1999 with the Rodney King situation still fresh enough on everyone's mind. He is leaned on by a few IA investigators (Sigourney Weaver and Ice Cube) who are itching to send him up. But that doesn't stop Dave from being a seething criminal in blue. His drinking and paranoia increase as the film meanders along behind him, until things begin to unravel. Not things with Dave, so to speak, but with the structure of the film. There is a late venture to an S&M club that seems especially out of place here. Because, despite Dave's penchant for one-night stands, this sort of sexual deviance rings completely false.
Much of Rampart rings false, which undermines the work Harrelson is doing here. He is compelling in the face of misrepresented realism that tries to pass off a muddled home life and a narrative with a structure that is too loose to stay interesting. If it is supposed to be some stylized sense of reality, or some unrealistic character study, things are not filmed that way. There is no directorial flair from Oren Moverman (who directed Harrelson in his Oscar-nominated role in The Messenger) to indicate some sort of alternate reality. It is sold as realism, and when that is abandoned everything goes awry. I wanted to like Rampart, because I typically enjoy the genre and would expect to particularly enjoy one starring Harrelson. And again, he is not the problem. It's the film falling down all around him.