Maybe it’s time for all of us as a moviegoing culture to redefine exactly what “good acting” entails. In Rampart, Woody Harrelson hits all the markers for what the Academy Awards considers to be a fine performance: He plays a bad LAPD cop and Vietnam vet named Dave Brown who happily does awful things (falsifying evidence, unapologetic racism and sexism, beating suspects, drinking and drugging on the job, being way too loud at the library). Harrelson has sculpted his body into a super-thin piece of gristle—his personal nutritionist is listed in the credits, just before Ice Cube’s personal stylist—and he strips down a whole lot to show it off. Of course, there are scenes where he confronts the ugly evil that he’s done, and there’s the requisite I’m-considering-suicide-but-I-just-can’t-do-it scene where Harrelson weeps and rubs the barrel of a .45 all over his face and head like he’s starring in a sadistic porno.
But instead of being an impressive display of craftsmanship, Rampart just feels like an exercise in actorly decadence. It’s Woody Harrelson behaving badly for a couple of hours, and it doesn’t leave much of an impression beyond that. Maybe the problem is that Harrelson doesn’t have much by way of support. The other big-name actors—Sigourney Weaver, Robin Wright, Ned Beatty, Steve Buscemi, the aforementioned Mr. Cube—are relegated to undynamic bit-player status as investigators and antagonists and uneasy allies. They only appear in a few scenes each, where their famous faces distract more than they intrigue as they slap against Harrelson’s acting.
Director Oren Moverman, who cowrote the script with unrepentant smarm-ball crime novelist James Ellroy, does deliver some interesting visual tricks. Moverman’s Los Angeles is a gaudily lit, horizontal monster of a city blessed with very occasional small pockets of paradisiacal beauty. And Brown’s story does have some intriguing complications (his daughters, each born to a different sister, are sisters and first cousins) which warrant further investigation that never arrives. Ultimately, though, Rampart simply follows Brown around as he does bad things to family and friends and criminals and victims as the world closes in around him, and the story comes to an abrupt and unsatisfying close. Watching a bad man do bad things isn’t nearly as interesting as everyone involved in Rampart believes it is.