Casting a cynical backward glance at the police scandals that rocked Los Angeles in the late ’90s, writer-director Oren Moverman (“The Messenger”) and resident crime-fiction specialist James Ellroy deliver a well-wrought but dramatically narrow account of a scuzzy cop’s personal and professional meltdown in “Rampart.” Woody Harrelson is excellent as a cynical, trigger-happy officer oblivious to the fresh winds of change and accountability sweeping through his embattled department. But while the film is drenched in atmosphere and packs a verbal and visceral punch, its relentless downward spiral makes for an overdetermined, not entirely satisfying character study with modest niche-release prospects.
The title alone would seem to promise a dense, meaty ensemble piece examining the vast network of corruption and misconduct that came to light within the Los Angeles Police Dept.’s Rampart division, from which more than 70 cops were charged with acts of unprovoked brutality, evidence falsification and other crimes. But while Ellroy has written plenty of novels in this intricate, layer-by-seedy-layer vein (and previously co-scripted the 2008 L.A. corrupt-cops thriller “Street Kings”), his collaboration with Moverman keeps the scandals largely in the background of the Rampart cop who drives the film’s every scene.
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It’s 1999, and Officer Dave Brown (Harrelson) is a rough-justice type whose 24 years on the force have taught him the necessity of bending the rules from time to time. Early scenes offer a quick sketch of this charismatically crooked figure, from his combative relationships with his fellow officers, laced with casually racist and chauvinist put-downs, to his weirdly functional relationships with his ex-wives (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon), who still live with him and each have a daughter by him. (Also, they’re sisters.)
It’s implied that Dave’s fierce protectiveness of his daughters partly motivated his alleged killing of a serial rapist years ago. That propensity for boundary-pushing violence again rears its head when Dave chases down and repeatedly beats a suspect, an act caught on video and rapidly disseminated on the news, threatening to stir up the sort of Rodney King-like embarrassment the LAPD doesn’t need in the wake of Rampart.
Soon he’s being pressed to retire by assistant district attorney Joan Confrey (a splendid Sigourney Weaver), the most satisfying of the many distaff nemeses Dave squares off with; another is Linda Fentress (Robin Wright), a foxy defense lawyer whom he ill-advisedly picks up in a bar.
Tightening the noose around his own neck, Dave surprises a trio of armed robbers in a tense, terse setpiece that invites the scrutiny of D.A. Investigator Kyle Timkins (Ice Cube). After making some off-color insinuations about Timkins, Dave offers a supremely cynical self-justification: “Bear in mind that I am not a racist. In general I hate all people.” The feeling would seem to be mutual, as everyone who knows Dave turns on him in the film’s second half.
Pic more than bears out the intelligence and moral toughness of Moverman’s 2009 directing debut, “The Messenger,” which also featured Harrelson and Ben Foster (almost unrecognizable here as a homeless informant). But while that film had a searching quality that uncovered new depths in every scene, “Rampart” seems to choke off feeling as it progresses, as if the filmmakers, having figured out humanity’s cynical equation, had nothing left to offer emotionally. Having spent its first half setting up its antihero for defeat, the pic has nowhere to go but down, striking the same punishing note to ever-diminishing returns.
But even when he seems to be in permanent moral free-fall, Harrelson keeps you watching; his unruly energy and devil-may-care attitude make Dave as likable as he is despicable, and his refusal to buckle to forces of political correctness and hypocrisy commands some admiration. Harrelson slimmed down by 25 pounds to play a guy who, the general reputation of cops notwithstanding, has little time to eat, and his dedication is on display in a series of sex scenes played with a complete absence of vanity.
With the exception of one immersive latenight club sequence, the raw, handheld lensing and fleet editing never call attention to themselves in the expert tech package. The city’s sun-bleached exteriors take on a hard, hellish cast in d.p. Bobby Bukowski’s color-saturated HD lensing, and the pic fairly teems with local atmosphere, especially in its handful of scenes at the original Tommy’s burger joint at the corner of Beverly and Rampart.