"Rampart" is a movie that can barely contain the ferocious life force that is its main character, a rule-breaking Los Angeles policeman. He's played by Woody Harrelson, and it's such a great performance that Oren Moverman ("The Messenger," which also starred Harrelson) seemingly gives over the film to his star, for better or worse. A character piece dressed up as a dirty-cop crime thriller, "Rampart" churns through some familiar terrain, but Harrelson is so dynamic that you trust him even when the film falters around him.
Inspired by the late-'90s corruption probe that roiled the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart division, "Rampart" is set in 1999 and features Harrelson as Dave Brown, a bigoted, arrogant cop who has a reputation as a loose cannon, renowned in the LAPD for possibly killing a date rapist without provocation a decade earlier. But after brutally beating a citizen, which was caught on video and sent to news channels, Dave's career hangs by a thread.
How Dave takes on the forces trying to bring him down -- not to mention his scheme to pay his exorbitant legal fees -- gives "Rampart" its narrative spine, but the film isn't so much concerned about those plot points. Really, it's a look at Dave, who manages to charm several different women into bed (most memorably Robin Wright as an edgy, boozing defense attorney) but has trouble being a father to his two daughters from two mothers. (Actually, the mothers are sisters. Yeah, Dave's that kind of guy.) While he may have some passing resemblance to Harvey Keitel and Nicolas Cage from the "Bad Lieutenant" films, Dave is a smart, charismatic, funny guy who's very much in control. If he didn't have a temper or a pigheaded view of women and minorities, you might even be proud to call him your friend.
Co-written by Moverman and L.A. crime novelist James Ellroy, "Rampart" is all atmosphere and grit, its generally bad attitude seemingly emanating directly from Dave's psyche. Plus, the film opens up the viewer to different parts of L.A. we rarely see -- specifically, downtown and the eastside. As part of its wonderfully lived-in tone, "Rampart" is filled with characters who feel like they've existed long before the film happened, including Sigourney Weaver as a City Hall muckety-muck obsessed with censuring Dave. And while Dave may be one more movie cop cursed with an unhappy home life, "Rampart" certainly gets points for originality, having Dave still live with the two sisters and their kids, determined to keep this unlikely family together. The film is called "Rampart," but the infamous police scandal figures far less into the story than Dave's furious tap-dancing to preserve his job and family.
Unfortunately, that's the film's biggest liability. While Harrelson is magnetic, Moverman could be accused of loving this unsavory but undeniably compelling character a bit too much. Especially as the screws tighten around Dave, "Rampart" becomes increasingly oppressive in its bleakness, lingering over every second of the character's potential downfall without offering a lot of insight into precisely what has laid him low. To be sure, Dave is a person we're not supposed to warm up to, but the movie can sometimes be an endurance test that challenges how miserable and self-destructive we're willing to watch Dave become. There's a bracing, uncompromising spirit that powers Harrelson's performance and Moverman's vision, but this stunning one-man show also ends up a little one-note.
(Note: The below clip contains strong language and may be NSFW.)