Playing a cop at his worst, his hands never dirtier, the stakes never higher, Woody Harrelson has perhaps never been better than he is in the seamy, scandalous jumbled rumble of "Rampart."
Set in Los Angeles in 1999, the film captures a time when public trust in law enforcement was brought down by the exposure of police corruption in the Rampart precinct. Rather than take on the widespread
malfeasance, director Oren
Moverman, sharing writing credit with crime novelist James Ellroy, constructed a story around one very bad cop running rampant in Rampart.
As it happens, Officer Dave Brown (Harrelson) is a world of trouble on his own. Like the proverbial onion, he has layers of internal rot, the result of bending the rules, and not just at work. He's got two ex-wives (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon), sisters — and he cheated on both — with a daughter from each marriage. All of that conflict is housed under one roof along with what's left of his moral compass.
But the film starts with his other home — the beat. Trussed up in his perfectly pressed uniform, the sun glaring off his midnight-black aviators, Dave scopes out the gang-riddled streets he patrols. You start to get a sense of his twisted worldview as he lectures the younger cops. But clarity comes with the first arrest, Dave muscling a confession out of a convenience store thief. Not long after, he's caught on tape beating a guy nearly to death Rodney King-style. It's still playing a continuous loop on TV when he's involved in a hinky shooting.
In very short order, Date-Rape Dave, as he's called for the date rape suspect he eliminated under suspicious circumstances, is in hot water with the already embattled department, looking at sanctions, maybe a forced retirement. Watching Dave try to fast-talk his way around an assistant dis-
trict attorney (Sigourney Weaver), quoting the law like scripture, provides a little comic relief, along with the realization that the problem for higher-ups isn't so much what he's done but the public embarrassment he's become by getting caught.
Before they are finished, the filmmakers have given Dave all the tribulations of Job, none of the godliness and very little hope of the redemption. Whereas Ellroy is fascinated by the sick twist of crime, Moverman seems to be drawn to tortured souls, as we saw in his directing debut, the soldier's story of 2009's "The Messenger." It drew notice for its authenticity and an Oscar nomination for Harrelson as a vet trying to remain unmoved by the death notices he's charged with delivering.
In "Rampart," Harrelson has to leave all decency behind. It is a credit to the actor that you feel anything — much less compassion — for a man his older daughter (Brie Larson, even more rebellious and embittered than she is in "United States of Tara") describes as homophobic, chauvinistic, racist and violent.
Dave's crimes against humanity — criminals, kids,
exes, lovers and others — are made more visceral by veteran director of photography Bobby Bukowski's ("Ethan Frome," "The Messenger") use of a hand-held camera and mostly natural light. Everything looks raw.
For all of its punishing pathos, the movie does not have the clean lines and elegance of another cut at crime in this city, "L.A. Confidential" (based on an Ellroy novel). As the day of reckoning approaches, the film spins out of control, careening between convoluted subplots, with the emotional pitch of the piece swinging too wildly.
Amid the debris, there are some gems to be found. Robin Wright as the wrung-out and strung-out defense attorney Dave meets in a bar, matches his cynicism and his sexual need beat for beat. Ned Beatty as the retired cop who's been covering for Dave for years, handles his own black soul with such evil grace it's chilling. But the film is really Harrelson's calling card — if there was any doubt — proof that the goofy bartender of "Cheers" has turned into a natural born killer on-screen.