Rampart takes place in 1999, and is named for a real-life LAPD scandal involving police ties to gangs. But Rampart, which was directed by the gifted Owen Moverman (The Messenger), takes place after that scandal and presumably acquires its name because of the poisonous atmosphere of mistrust it generated around the already tarnished LAPD. Rampart is less an indictment of the LAPD than a roiling, agitated look at a uniformed cop who has been bad so long, he doesn’t even remember what good looks like.
Harrelson plays David Douglas Brown, a cop who has been given the nickname of “Date Rape” by his fellow officers: He's suspected of having killed a serial rapist, doling out his own brand of justice without the encumbrance of a trial. He’s a swaggering, cocky member of the LAPD who may actually think of himself as a good cop; i.e., one who prizes results over procedural niceties.
It's easy to see how a cop might fall into this trap: If you cross the line to achieve what you regard as a good end, how long before you cross it just because you can?
As this edgy -- even jagged -- movie progresses, Brown reveals himself as a lost soul who’s estranged from his current wife (Anne Heche), and who happens to be the sister of his former wife (Cynthia Nixon), a needless domestic complication in a script credited to James Ellroy and Moverman.
Brown’s also a father; he shares tender moments with his youngest daughter (Stella Schnabel), but his teen-age daughter (Brie Larson) treats him with rueful disregard. Because Brown's such a well-known louse, Larson's Helen evidently views her sullenness as a kind of entitlement.
After Messenger, a terrific little movie about two Army officers (Harrelson and Ben Foster) assigned to informing next of kins about loved ones who have been killed in battle, a lot of actors probably wanted to work with Moverman. His strong supporting cast includes Messenger vet Foster, as a wheelchair bound bum; Ice Cube, as an internal affairs investigator; Ned Beatty, as a retried cop who seems to have schooled Brown in corruption; and Robin Wright, as a lawyer and extracurricular love interest for Brown.
They’re all good, but the movie is caught in Brown’s corrupt swirl. Somewhere near the mid-picture mark, he's caught on camera beating a fleeing suspect, an incident that creates a Rodney King-style furor. He tries to rob a poker game to generate cash for himself, and winds up being investigated for an unlawful shooting. He smokes too much and drinks excessively. He's a dangerous wreck of a man, who offers arrogant rationalizations to the police psychologist (Sigourney Weaver) who questions him. He did time in Vietnam and has been on the crime front lines for decades. That's his rap.
Rampart aims for gritty truth, but may be too caught up in Brown's delirium to find any. You’ll find some overwrought scenes and lots of pulp-flavored cinematography as Rampart follows Brown’s descent into a private hell that, in the end, seems all too familiar -- not necessarily from reality, but from other movies that have tried to plumb the souls of other cops gone bad.
Harrelson deserves credit for pulling out all the stops, but Rampart is so hell bent on pushing his character beyond the moral pale, that it ultimately lets him down. Rampart is well-performed, but it often feels as tarnished as its main character.
Footnotes: I don't know what it means (probably nothing) but for those who collect coincidences: Brei Larson, who out-sullens just about every known teen-ager in Rampart, has a much lighter turn in 21 Jump Street, which also opens this week. Ice Cube, who plays an internal investigator for the LAPD in Rampart, portrays another cop in 21 Jump Street. Of Ice Cube's two performances, I prefer his work in Rampart, which allows him to break out of his one-note, scowling mode.