He has a big head, medium-beaky nose and crew-cut patches of thinning hair that resemble bird mange. He caws with a whiny south-western accent. Woody Harrelson is not a pretty sight – or sound. Playing a corrupt and brutal Los Angeles cop in the darkly riveting Rampart, he might have escaped from some neglected aviary. His almost-first line, tasked with illegal brutality on a night out with the nightstick, is: “‘Illegal’ is just a sick bird. Let’s have some fun...”
LAPD fun, the world knows, is in a class of its own. “Rampart” is the precinct with the worst record: so bad it inspired a cable teleseries, The Shield. The movie, written by James Ellroy with Israeli-Hollywood director Oren Moverman (last seen powering up another high-voltage Harrelson-in-uniform performance in The Messenger), has a shimmying complexity and a savage wit. At its centre is a character portrait almost as memorably excruciating – in its tormented, self-tormenting psyche – as Büchner’s Woyzeck.
Is it accidental, or a reflection of the hero’s fractured vision, that supporting characters come in twos? Dave “Date-Rape” Brown (Harrelson), so named because he may once have killed on duty a serial rapist, lives with two ex-wives who are also sisters (Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon), has two daughters, and is being “investigated” by two women: one a lover/lawyer (Robin Wright) who might be casing him, the other police boss Sigourney Weaver. Each Brown offence also comes in two versions: his and everyone else’s. When he beats up a reckless driver, or attacks and robs a robber fleeing a high-stakes poker game, it’s “reasonable force” (him) or one more reason the precinct is “haemorrhaging prestige” (Weaver).
The dialogue is delectably Ellroy. The hero, homeworking his imaginary defence on spare evenings, alternates arias of surreal legalese with curt statements of faith and mission: “I’m not a racist. I hate everyone equally.” Harrelson displays Brando quirks here: he sighs, murmurs through the nose, massages his bronzed and shiny crown. In this rogue law-enforcer Conrad/Coppola’s Kurtz might see a younger cousin. You come out of Rampart thinking: “Praise God I don’t live in that police precinct.” But you also think: “If we must have anti-cops, let’s have them hubristic, visible, self-confessed and a little mad: show-demons like this, to help identify and set off the angels.”
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel proves you can’t keep the senior British acting community away from exotic places. Provence, Tuscany, Venice: these people are luxury luggage with wanderlust. The filmmaker snatches them off the luvvies carousel, rushes them through customs and, hey presto, they and he (John Shakespeare in Love Madden) are in exotic Jaipur. Dames Judi and Maggie; Tom Wilkinson; Bill Nighy; and, as the game old goat with the raspy-wry voice and grizzled handsome features, Ronald Pickup. (John Hurt got lost in transit.)
Like rushed luggage, the film and its stars then burst lovably all over the place. Henry James and EM Forster used to be the main tour agents for this stuff, Merchant Ivory their couriers. But the genre has diversified. Deborah Moggach wrote the source novel about a group of British pensioners lured to India by advertisements for an idyllic retirement hotel. Old Raj palace done over – looks and sounds lovely. Turns out, they are the ones done over. The hotel’s “improvements” were Photoshopped. The young proprietor, played by Dev Slumdog Millionaire Patel with borrowings from Peter Sellers and Alec Guinness, is a hard-selling, hard-smiling Indian out of his depth.
We know that after initial discomforts – cockroaches, strange food (Maggie Smith: “If I can’t pronounce it, I don’t want to eat it”) – everyone will settle down, learn wisdom and elegiacally unravel. This is Eat Pray Love for British wrinklies: Eat Fray Love. Judi Dench is best in show as the widow punching out sad-sour optimism – those brimming eyes, that rheumy-crackling voice – while being romanced by Nighy’s henpecked married man. Tom Wilkinson gets a gay subplot. Maggie Smith dons a cockney accent, rather like a village dowager agreeing to have first heave at the coconut shy. By the time we realise the movie is as thin as a wraith and as winsome as syrup, with some nice moments, it is over.
Safe House will never be over, we think, as we watch Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds rush around Johannesburg and points east, west, north, south. They are a spy and CIA employee joined in fight and flight. Denzel sports a beard, Afro and look of sardonically penetrating appraisal. (We have no idea, most of the time, what he’s appraising.) Reynolds is the one who gets punched, stabbed, shot and thrown around. He is meant to deliver Denzel to his paymasters, but pursuing Muslims have other ideas.
Surprisingly, the film was not directed by Tony Scott (Man on Fire), a Denzel-in-danger specialist whose retina-scorching visuals are imitated here by Daniel Espinosa. With a magisterial disregard for plausibility, everyone survives gunfire and Armageddon, over and over. They should end up as walking, refugee colanders. But like brave heroes they stay in the kitchen and stand the heat.
In The Adopted, French star Mélanie Inglourious Basterds Laurent proves she is not just a pretty face. She is a rounder-up of pretty faces. Writing and directing, she fills this aspirational weepie – determined to be simultaneously grown-up, literate, skittish and New Wave-ish – with good-looking players, including car-accident coma-victim heroine Marie Denarnaud, her features “disfigured” by one of those bruises that set off perfectly a perfect cheekbone. The film is harmless, whimsical, a little long-winded: While You Were Sleeping without Sandra Bullock but with extra Gallic chic.
Black Gold, an Arabs-versus-Arabs desert war epic, proves Einstein’s theory that space is curved. The screen is as wide as the universe, but the further you go in either direction the more you realise you have been there before. Armies clash; extras rhubarb; star Tahar Rahim (of A Prophet) looks sexy and puppy-eyed while slaughtering thousands.