An edgy, prize-worthy performance by Woody Harrelson as uncomfortable and raw-knuckled as a bruised fist elevates Rampart. It’s a lacerating look at the life of a dirty cop, set during the immoral, violent and headline-making lawlessness of the Los Angeles Police Department in the Rampart squad scandals of 1999. The background and a lot of the thinly disguised facts assembled by the great crime writer James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential) have been fictionalized to concentrate on one man instead of a whole gang of rogue cops, but Oren Moverman’s sucker punch direction and script (co-written by Mr. Ellroy) reek of authenticity. Mr. Harrelson plays the corrupt police captain Dave Brown, who unhooked the buckles of law and order years earlier and is still a member of the LAPD. From keeping the unreported narcotics from his drug busts for personal use to bashing women at will, he’s man who not only refuses to play by the rules but no longer even knows what the rules are. His private life is just as wonky. Somehow he’s managed to father children by two sisters (Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche), still slipping in and out of their houses unannounced. He’s loved by none, hated by all. His own daughter calls him “Date Rape” because years earlier, he killed a rapist and got away with it.
Stalking the dark streets in his black and white cruiser, a cigarette clenched between his teeth, he’s as much a force to reckon with as any criminal on the loose. Beating up suspects, making up charges illegally and arresting innocent people on a whim, Dave is a fiend with a badge, but it’s not long before local activists catch his brutality on TV and now his Rampart division faces disciplinary action. As the assistant DA prosecuting his case, Sigourney Weaver is already up to her earrings in lawsuits against the city, so Dave can see a downward spiral coming. We wait anxiously to see how it will happen and when. Robin Wright is a woman he meets in a bar who turns out to be a defense lawyer with a few tricks up her own sleeve. Ned Beatty is a retired cop with his own history of corruption who plays a pivotal role in Dave’s egocentric downfall. Ben Foster, Oscar-nominated for Mr. Moverman’s moving 2009 film The Messenger, contributes another colorful performance as a homeless man who witnessed one of Dave’s murders, and Ice Cube is fine as an internal affairs investigator. The elements click into place like the well-oiled parts in a clock.
Rampart is an unnerving warts-and-all portrait of a man staggering around in circles of arrogant self-deception. Despite some nausea from hand-held cameras, dismal lighting and busy jump cuts that challenge the concentration, the film works because of Mr. Harrelson’s magnetism. Even as a totally offensive goon with mob mentality, he has an irresistibly sympathetic quality, but Mr. Moverman’s crackerjack direction provides no easy way out for a filthy cop who digs his own hole and finds the only direction is down.
Running Time 108 minutes
Written by James Ellroy and Oren Moverman
Directed by Oren Moverman
Starring Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster and Sigourney Weaver