Walking the same corrupt cop beat as Michael Chiklis’s similarly brutal detective from The Shield (a show whose working title was actually Rampart, fact fans), Woody Harrelson is L.A. cop, David Brown. He’s an intense character driven by a set of rules that he defines, like “eat those fries if you wanna make probation”, his threatening ultimatum to a young female rookie who has ordered chips that she doesn’t really want to eat. It’s dismissed with a laugh, but bubbling underneath the surface is a nagging feeling that he actually means it.
Having such a character exist against the backdrop of 1999 Los Angeles is a recipe for inflammatory events, and it results in the over exuberant apprehension of an African American citizen that’s caught on camera, throwing the department and the streets into chaos.
With a home life more Manson than Brady (he propositions multiple women around the same family dinner table and his own daughter refers to him as “date-rape”) Brown must fight a hierarchy that wants him canned – Sigourney Weaver plays his hard-nosed boss – as well as his own self destructive personality that brazenly claims “I’m not a racist, I hate all people equally”.
Shot in a grim, handheld, sub-Michael Mann style, the look perfectly captures the scuzzy mood of the material, and it’s this seedy, morally uncomfortable aspect of the film which is its greatest success. Brown doesn’t live a particularly nice life and we are forced to view it through this grainy voyeuristic filter.
Dominating the film is Harrelson, an excellently portrayed, self-officiating cowboy, and a very unsympathetic character that’s anything but the anti-hero the marketing might portray. His lecherous, prejudicial behaviour leaves the viewer with very little beyond the surface level bleakness. Redemption doesn’t appear to be an option at any stage of the movie and that’s frustrating in maintaining narrative interest.
The peripheral characters do little to offset Harrelson’s immorality. Each has their own baggage that maintains the morose tone of the film; Sigourney Weaver feels miscast as the police chief; Steve Buscemi is only given a handful of scenes; Ben Foster is surely too good to be reduced to bit-part roles such as his homeless man routine on display here; and Robin Wright-Penn’s motivations for getting involved with Brown are as hazy as the wonderfully shot night of decadence sequence.
Spectacularly unspectacular and not nearly half as controversial as it wants you to believe it is, Rampart comes across like a well made TV pilot for a series we’ve seen countless times before. At its core it features an interesting if unremarkable turn from the former Cheers barman.