Film Review: Rampart

Woody Harrelson's no-holds-barred performance as a veteran cop trapped in a downward spiral of his own making is the white-hot core of this intense drama, whose relentless intimacy may play better on a small screen.

Look elsewhere if you're hankering for a cool, dispassionate analysis of the notorious LAPD scandal. But if you're hankering for a new version of Bad Lieutenant anchored by a performance that will no doubt rank among the high-water marks of Woody Harrelson's career, Rampart is a must-see.

Los Angeles, 1999: Dave Brown (Harrelson) has seen a lot of changes in his 24 years on the force and doesn't much like any of them, from the female cops patrolling the streets alongside men to the ever-increasing scrutiny—departmental and public—of the way police officers treat the junkies, rapists and killers they're supposed to be clearing off the streets so decent people can live their lives unmolested. And despite his ferocious loyalty to the LAPD, he's got more in common with grizzled old retired bastards like Hartshorn (Ned Beatty), who rue the day people stopped looking up to cops as shining blue knights, than most of his fellow officers, who on the whole don't much care for him, whether because they're part of the new breed of "no justice in the backroom" wimps or the contemporaries who wish he'd be more circumspect in his trampling of scumbags' rights. Brown's career has been in the balance ever since he killed a serial rapist several years earlier—he was brought up on charges and everyone knows he did it, but no one could prove it.

About the only part of Brown's life that isn't an explosion in the making is his oddly functional relationship with his ex-wives, sisters Catherine and Barbara (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon), and daughters Helen and Margaret (Brie Larson and Sammy Boyarsky), all of whom he lives with in a state of prickly familial harmony. But even that goes to hell when he's caught on tape beating a black motorist within an inch of his life after a fender-bender.
Already reeling from the LAPD’s Rampart division corruption scandal and under fire from community activists, the department hangs Brown out to dry. Within days, Internal Affairs investigator Kyle Timkins (Ice Cube) is on Dave's case and sleek assistant D.A. Joan Confrey (Sigourney Weaver)—who's had a hard-on for him since witnessing the fallout from the alleged date-rapist killing, including the suicide of the dead man's wife and the surrender of his three children to abusive foster care—is encouraging him to retire and save the department a whole lot of grief. Dave, of course, isn't about to go down without a fight (in his defense, and there's not much in that corner, he's probably not wrong when he argues he's far from the worst cop in the quarter), even if he takes down everyone and everything he loves in the process. Which is exactly what happens after he tries to fatten his defense fund by ripping off an illegal, high-stakes card game on the advice of old pal Hartshorn: The takedown goes to hell and Dave is plunged into a downward spiral that can only end one way.
That's about it for plot, which really isn't director Owen Moverman's foremost concern. As in The Messenger, his first collaboration with Harrelson, the focus is on character, and Harrelson takes Dave Brown and runs with him. Rampart is shot through with echoes of other movies, from Bad Lieutenant to the slick Internal Affairs (1990) and 2008's Street Kings, also penned by crime novelist James Ellroy. But it's propelled by its own scuzzy energy and Harrelson proves once again that he may be the most consistently underrated actor working in American movies today. It's time to stand up and say that it's not remarkable when he delivers a world-class performance: It's business as usual.