Woody Harrelson is too good for this.
Given that the film isn't fresh enough in my memory and that I'm essentially riffing off notes from my screening experiences at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, I find it especially surprising that Rampart - Oren Moverman's follow-up to his critically acclaimed debut The Messenger - is still lingering somewhere in the more recognizable parts of my head. It looks as though Woody Harrelson will be up for Oscar nods this season, and while I think his performance is one of particular gusto, he's ultimately overshadowed by a dreary and run-of-the-mill plot.
Harrelson's performance is one reminiscent of Denzel Washington's in Training Day: the role of a tough, streetwise cop who bears very little likable or endearing qualities that flexes the actor's emotional range but is stuck in a position of arrested development within a yawningly mediocre plot. For every moment the audience is drawn into the complicated psyche of a racist, sexist, violent, and troubled mind, they are spat back out by ridiculousness. I can vividly remember a board meeting sequence in which tempers flair between Harrelson, Sigourney Weaver and Steve Buscemi, and though the scene is acted with a heartfelt passion it all is laid to waste by jarring and completely unnecessary camera movement. I understand that Moverman is trying to visually capture the tensions in the room, but it makes the proceedings feel forced. If you have powerful actors who can hold the story themselves, even for that one instant, just take your hands off the camera and the editing console. You'll have a much better movie for it.
While Harrelson certainly has the dramatic range and emotional flexibility to throw himself into a role and succeed, this picture is ultimately tampered by its constant "there are no black and white issues" and grey areas. Throwing all these obstacles at this man - not to mention making him overly detestable - turn what could have been a Harvey Keitel inspired performance of a bad cop driven to some form of salvation into a one-note envelopment of 'badness' that is sprinkled with some faux visual finesse just to get an Oscar nod. Looking at this film in comparison to Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant , there are many aspects that illustrate how a film like this could have balanced its B-movie storyline with A-movie actors. Ferrara took a new junk aesthetic in which he melded an over-the-top crime drama (some of the scenes border on exploitation trash) with a harrowing focus on drug addiction and emotional despair, and he made it work. Rampart, on the other hand, is intent on going the Fuqua way of plot over narrative: show everyone how much of a jerk the protagonist is, surround him with things to bigot against (hello two wives and sexually confused daughter), and throw in some tension. While it doesn't devolve into an action film like Training Day did, it's still a wildly incomplete mess of a movie that can't decide whether it wants to be a story-driven melodrama or a character-centric rumination on certain aspects of the human condition.
I'm not providing a rating here, but I don't think the Academy should waste much time with this one.